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Ruby Fruit Jungle

Eat, drink and be berry in Vermont's strawberry season

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There's nothing like the first bite of a bright-red spring strawberry. The flood of tart, complex juice is sure to waken taste buds dulled by the starchy comfort foods of winter.

As our short strawberry season wends on, the flavors begin to change. Lengthening days and climbing mercury give rise to darker berries with sweet, jammy overtones. While the early berries are complemented by a touch of sugar and splashes of heavy cream, the later ones are perfect for eating out of hand. Preferred method: Standing in the berry patch on a sunny day with leaves tickling your ankles.

And the Green Mountain state has an abundance of places where you can do just that: The Agency of Agriculture's website reports 90 strawberry growers in the state, who produce nearly 2 million pounds of berries each year. It also offers a list of places to get your pick-your-own fix, from Addison County to Windsor County. If you don't have time to DIY, you'll find farmstands listed, too.

Unfortunately, you can't hang out all day eating in the berry patch — unless you happen to own your own. And since people invariably pick more berries than they're going to eat (don't you?), here are a few ideas for using the leftovers, proffered by some local experts.

Whether you like your berries hot in a scone, cool in a cheesecake or icy in a granita, we'll get you out of your jam. And if you're in search of something a little more potent, we've got that, too. Don't use booze? Go for a swig of strawberry lemonade.

Use them or lose them — by the first week in July, those fresh local berries will be history. But don't fret about the season ending: It just brings us one step closer to blueberries.

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Biggest Berry?

Paul Reynolds, 33, of Montpelier is making a sizable claim. The violist, who teaches at Middlebury College and plays with groups such as the Vermont Symphony Orchestra and the Vermont Mozart Festival, thinks he's found the world's biggest strawberry: He's so sure he even posted a challenge on YouTube, asking people to reply with their own videos and "try to become the strawberry king." How big, exactly? Reynolds' berry came in at 5 inches long and 3 inches wide.

Have the folks at the Montpelier Shaw's, where Reynolds' wife purchased the berry, heard about the video? When contacted, Darcy Perrault, the produce manager, was in the dark about her store's new claim to fame. "I'm totally unaware of it," she said, laughing.

How about the growers in California who made all this possible? Anthony Gallino, vice president for sales at California Giant, hasn't seen the video either, but plans to. He guesses the whopper is of the Albion variety, which is big and super-sweet.

But before you assume this was a genetically modified Franken-fruit, consider that Vermont's organic strawberry growers offer some almost comparable big 'uns, like the Cabot variety grown at Adam's Berry Farm in the Intervale. From the West Coast, Gallino scoffs at the notion that the Reynolds' berry is actually the world's biggest. "There are some bigger," he insists. The question is, who has 'em?

Seven Days contacted Reynolds to ask a few questions about the super-fruit.

SEVEN DAYS: Do you plan to preserve the strawberry for posterity? Maybe you could varnish it or something.

PAUL REYNOLDS: My plan was to preserve it . . . I thought about selling it on eBay, and I told my wife about that. But we agreed that, in transit, it probably wouldn't last.

SD: What did you ultimately decide? Did you carve it up like a Thanksgiving turkey?

PR: My 2-year-old daughter's eyes were so big when she saw it that I couldn't resist giving it to her . . . she ate the whole thing.

SD: That must have taken a while.

PR: About 20 minutes. She had it all over her face and she just kept saying how good it was.

SD: How did you come upon the strawberry? Did you comb through a bin at the grocery store?

PR: It was in a regular container of strawberries. The top layer was made of normal-sized strawberries; the bottom was one big berry.

SD: How did the discovery make you feel?

PR: I felt it shouldn't be for my eyes alone . . . I'm not sure it was supposed to be sent to me, but it was, and I get to share it with the world.

SD: How's that sharing thing going? Are people flocking to see it?

PR: I'm playing Madame Butterfly at the Barre Opera House tonight, and my stand partner saw the video and is very impressed. I've had about 150 views so far [as of last Friday]. I'd like to reach 150,000.

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All About the Berries

• Strawberries are related to roses, raspberries, apples and plums — but not to blueberries.

• Despite the name, strawberries aren't "berries" in the botanical sense. Each seed is technically a separate fruit; what we call a "berry," scientists call an "aggregate."

• Strawberries are grown in every U.S. state and every Canadian province.

• The average strawberry has 200 seeds.

• In Bavaria, some folks still tie baskets of wild strawberries to the horns of their cattle. According to tradition, elves like strawberries so much that they'll enhance calf and milk production in exchange for the treat.

• Argentines considered strawberries poisonous until the mid-19th century. The French were less fraise-phobic. Medieval monarch Charles V had 1200 strawberry plants installed in the gardens at the Louvre. Madame Tallien, a fashion icon at Napoleon's court, was said to bathe in crushed strawberries.

• Native Americans called strawberries "heart-seed berries." Perhaps the shape also gave rise to the legend that if you split and share a double strawberry, you'll soon fall in love with your co-eater. No word on what happens if you split a quadruple strawberry with three other people.

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