Everyone knows and loves mangoes and lychees and waits with anticipation for the season to begin each summer… But just before the tropical fruit deluge, berries reign, and we aren’t talking those rosy red beauties that made Knaus Berry strawberry shakes so famous. Blueberries may just be Florida’s secret star crop.
Well, not that secret. I spoke with Trish Strawn, a rep from Florida Fresh, who grew up on her family’s grass fed cattle farm and is chiefly familiar with Florida farming. Her advice was as obvious as it was eye opening. “Just Google ‘Florida Bluerberries…'” Lo and behold, there is a Florida Blueberry Growers Association and an Annual Florida Blueberry Festival complete with a cartoon blueberry commercial… How did I miss this?!
Blueberries have a very short season in Florida. It runs from about the first week in April to the first week of June. The thing is, blueberries thrive in citrus fields. Almost every citrus company grows blueberries. Whatever the citrus trees are taking from the soil, the blueberries don’t need, so you will often see them planted side by side. We get our local blueberries from Crown Jewel Farms or Uncle Matt’s – at this point in the season, all our blueberries are coming from Uncle Matt’s in Clermont, FL. Uncle Matt’s is a certified organic farm and they are best known for their juices. They grow four different varieties of blueberries and the chefs get a fresh mix upon delivery. They farm using the permaculture method, as Trish explains, their approach is to go “with mother nature.” Uncle Matt’s grow blueberries in oak barrels, and underneath each barrel they plant a vinegar patch which naturally filters the soil.
At The Cypress Room, Chef Roel Alcudia pairs blueberries with duck and Porcini mushrooms on our tasting menu. The blueberries complement the duck’s gaminess and the porcini’s earthiness.When you taste all the components together, it strikes a harmony between the three main ingredients. Chef explains, “Blueberries have an assertive, concentrated flavor, they are both sweet and sour. In this dish, we utilize both of those flavor profiles as a counterpoint to the duck and porcini.” Blueberries are extremely versatile; you’ll find them gracing The Cypress Room’s lunch prix fixe, dinner tasting, desserts, petit fours like macarons, gelees and housemade sodas.
Margie Pikarsky runs a tight ship in Homestead, FL where she has been growing all sorts of berries since the beginning of Bee Heaven Farm. Margie has a wealth of knowledge about South Florida crops and farming. Margie actually doesn’t grow blueberries. She explained that although the blueberries can handle the heat, the soil this far South is too basic (as opposed to acidic) for them. Further North, in Central Florida and beyond, the soil is more acidic and mucky – much more their comfort zone!
Bee Heaven Farm grows a variety of dark berries including three types of mulberries, mysore raspberry, muntingia (Jamaican cherry), dark surinam cherry, antidesma and Barbados cherry. Our chefs love the pencil mulberry (we do too!) – they are native to Pakistan and are deliciously sweet. They grow to be about three inches long and they produce one harvest a year, around February and March. If you visited any of our restaurants in that time, you probably tried some of Margie’s mulberries! Margie’s first mulberry tree “was a gift from a passing bird” in the late 1970s. When she purchased Bee Heaven Farms, it was one of the first things she planted. Margie learned more about them by visiting the Redland Fruit & Spice Park, “one of my favorite resources for learning about fruit that do well here.” And if that is where Margie, a South Florida farming encyclopedia and all around wonder woman goes to expand her wealth of knowledge, I can only imagine what one could find there!
Mysore raspberries are native to India, but do much better in this climate than the red or black raspberries you find at the grocery store. Mysore typically produces from January to May. The interesting thing about mysore raspberries, Margie explains, is that they have zero shelf life, so you have to pick them bright and early and get them into a cooler ASAP. Because of intricacies like this, you won’t find them in commercial markets – but Margie brings them to the farmer’s markets and they sell out quick!
When Margie purchased the farm, there was already a muntingia tree planted there. She explains, “Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma almost put an end to it, but I found and encouraged a couple of root suckers near the original plant, and they have rewarded us with plenty of fruit over the years.” Muntingia is native to the Caribbean, and the only member of its genus so it is extremely unique. “It bears mulitple crops a year, and is especially responsive to rains. It’s known as cotton candy fruit, because that’s exactly what it tastes like!”
Up until last week, I had never heard of a Surinam cherry. Then, thanks to Forager, a great guide book to Miami’s edible plants, I took to the streets and picked about 4 pounds of Surinam cherries from public parking lots and medians. Surinam cherries were an extremely popular hedge plant in the 1950s and 1960s, which is why if you look, you will see them everywhere! The cherries you find driving around are typically red and orange, the don’t taste great until they are perfectly ripe – bright red and fall off the tree at the slightest touch. Margie grows black surinam cherries, which are sweeter than the ones I picked. Margie says, “between the birds and rapid ripening, our Surinam cherries don’t usually make it to market.” So take a walk and see if you can find some on your block!
Margie grows Barbados cherry for personal ‘grazing’ since the crop is sporadic at best and a favorite of hungry fruit flies. Antidesma, a tropical berry that is sometimes known as bignay, grows in dense clusters, “like a cylinder of tightly packed grapes.” This tree was also on the property when Margie took over, she likes to use it to make butter (like apple butter) and says that is makes ‘the most amazing red wine.’ “It has borne well only a few times in the past 20 years, around September. But, oh! When it does bear! Delicious!” Margie gushes.
Thank you to Margie, Trish and Chef Roel for talking blueberries with me and teaching me so much!
See how blueberries are hitting the plate and the glass across Genuineland by following our restaurants’ social feeds #genuineblueberries. We are very excited to keep you posted!