Neatly packed into half-pint baskets, a mouth-watering array of summer berries is on display at the farmers’ market. The short green cardboard berry baskets, sometimes called “punnets,” are customarily topped with mesh covering to discourage sampling and rough handling by curious passers-by. Berries make an intriguing presentation, artfully arranged by color and variety. Their jewel-like appearance enchants the eye and invites hand-to-mouth exploration.
PY and Randy Pudwill, berry growers from Nipomo, have single-handedly created a renaissance in berry production at farmers’ markets. They do not grow any strawberries – instead they produce multiple varieties of blackberries, raspberries and blueberries that are now available virtually year round. Blueberries have received much attention lately, including in this column, and Randy Pudwill is concentrating on growing these nutrition-packed berries on sufficient acreage to allow him to have at least some berries all year. Blueberries produce in spurts, and the February to June spurt is just coming to an end. Blueberry customers may have noticed that the growers who produce only blueberries are temporarily out of the markets, with promises to return in August with another crop. Like other growers, the Pudwills grow a variety of different blueberries to ensure productivity and flavor.
Randy Pudwill has been on a rapid uphill learning curve with his family berry business ever since he and his wife, PY, began growing delectable, fragile berries in earnest several years ago. Starting at markets with one short-season raspberry crop, the Pudwill berry operation has expanded its planting and is experimenting with dozens of different kinds of berries, including boysenberries, blackberries, a rare reddish Tay berry; red, gold, black and purple raspberries ( the purples have been removed from the program — too temperamental), gooseberries – also pulled out of production – and, more recently, golden champagne currants, red currants, black currants and the highly perishable and to-die-for fraise de bois wild strawberries that come in -– are you ready for this -– red and white.
Even within the family of red raspberries grown on Pudwill’s berry farm, there are variations in taste and growing characteristics. Randy selects his berries for three factors – flavor is number one, but also seasonality and the degree of difficulty it takes to grow them. Some types of berries are simply not adaptable to California’s mild climate. Berries need to have a dormant period, brought on by freezing temperatures in the East, but specialized “low chill” varieties grown on the West coast can be induced to go to sleep by a certain number of hours of 45 degree weather. Berries all have specific soil and watering requirements, and it takes careful observation and some failed experimentation to find out what works best for each variety. Some types of berries are more susceptible to disease. One of the biggest challenges Randy had to face recently was a shipment of nursery plants that contained a fungus disease that spread to his healthy plants. He had to pull out all the diseased plants and replant with a completely different kind of disease resistant berry to break up the fungus life cycle – and he suffered heavy losses in the process.
People familiar with the Pudwill’s stand will appreciate the artful appearance of the berry display. There is usually a predominance of blackberries, interspersed with golden raspberries, blueberries and whatever else is in season at the time. Blackberries grow in profusion most of the year, although they slow down in the winter months. If you look closely, you will find delicious, seasonal nectarberrries, which are very similar to blackberries but a bit smaller.
The currant is a rare and delicate type of fruit that is rarely available fresh. The fresh fruit has a high degree of acidity that is prized by chefs. They add a touch of twang to almost any dish, and their translucent flesh is beautiful to behold. I sampled a white frais de bois recently and was amazed by the power of its flavor -– an intense, almost creamy strawberry essence. I bought a basket each of the red and white fraises to share at a dinner party that evening, but found that even a few hours in my warm car had caused them to wilt. Randy and PY both caution customers to consume the frais de bois as soon as possible, or to cook them down for a particularly special jam or topping. It is amazing that these delicate little berries can survive the truck ride down from Nipomo, let alone a full day in the market. Try some if you can as an homage to this practically unobtainable delicacy.Berry-picking is a labor intensive, painstaking process that must be done every other day to ensure that the ripe berries are removed from the plants so they will continue to produce fruit. When weather conditions and seasonality are at their peak, the plants produce so much fruit that they must be picked daily. These are the times that the Pudwills come to market with extra fruit – occasionally Randy is able to “make his customers happy” by providing them with a price break in times of over abundance. Berries are picked, hand-sorted and placed into market baskets right from the field. They cannot be picked in foggy or rainy conditions since moisture causes them to rapidly break down. It is essential to keep berries free from condensation in your refrigerator and to rinse them only briefly prior to eating them. They are delicious baked, cooked into syrup, or simply eaten fresh with or without cream. Mother Nature herself must be amused by this fragile, bright creation.