Local strawberries bring the sweetness of summer to the table.

It’s June, and in western Pennsylvania, that means the short (but oh-so-sweet) strawberry season is upon us. It’s time to get local berries, especially since the harvest is normally over by the end of the month. At no other time can you find strawberries like this—ripe, fragrant, juicy and perfectly sweet—and they really don’t need much to enhance their flavor. Eat them plain, use them to make strawberry shortcake (see p. 76 for Chris Fennimore’s recipe), slice them and serve over vanilla ice cream or dip them in a bowl of melted chocolate.

Originally, strawberries were tiny, wild and extremely delicate. The fruit’s first improvement occurred in the 17th century, when a natural hybrid was created after two New World species combined.

F. virginiana, the first species, was discovered in the colonies, where the American Indians ate it fresh or dried. The second species, F. chiloensis, a larger and juicer type with pineapple overtones, was carried back to France by an officer who discovered it at the foot of the Andes Mountains in Chile. European plant-breeders used this larger, sturdier berry to create new varieties.

In 1823, a British hybrid called the Keens’ Seedling trumped them all for size and flavor, and became the plant from which almost every modern strawberry descended.

By the 1940s, California established a strawberry industry that continues to dominate the market today (80 percent of domestic strawberries are grown there); this has turned out to be a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it means you can buy strawberries year-round, but on the other hand, berries that can survive cross-country shipping are picked before their peak and will never truly taste great. In addition, industrial-sized strawberry fields are sprayed many times with noxious agricultural chemicals, which is just one more reason to support local growers, who generally use a variety of controls to manage weeds, pests and other factors that can damage the crop.

This month, visit one of the city’s farmers markets, and bring home berries that were picked that same morning.

Here’s a handy lineup of strawberry-focused farms and festivals to help you enjoy the local crop while it lasts. Harvest usually begins around Memorial Day and lasts through the end of June. If you’re interested in the pick-your-own option, call ahead or check individual websites for dates and times.

Harvest Valley Farms

The King family uses sustainable farming practices (meaning that they use the least amount of pesticides necessary) to grow strawberries. Located about 20 miles from downtown Pittsburgh, the 140-acre farm’s store sells freshly picked berries as well as homemade jam. Harvest Valley strawberries are also sold at many local farmers markets, including East Liberty (Mondays, 3:30-7 p.m.), Market Square (Thursdays, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.) and the Monroeville Lions Farmers Market at Gateway High School (Saturdays, 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m.). The farm also offers a CSA with pick-up sites around the city, and, of course, strawberries are included in the baskets.

Harvest Valley Farm, 125 Ida Lane, Valencia; 724/443-5869; Harvest Valley Farm Market and Bakery, 6003 Cunningham Road, Gibsonia; 724/898-3276;

Triple B Farms

The Beinlich family has been growing strawberries for more than two decades. At their Farm Market (open daily), you can pick up juicy berries, strawberry jam and homemade white-chocolate fudge with strawberries. The farm offers a pick-your-own strawberries option between Memorial Day and the end of June (lasting about three to three-and-one-half weeks). Visit during the annual Strawberry Festival Weekend (June 11-12) to take a hayride through the strawberry patch, participate in fun children’s programs and enjoy treats like homemade strawberry shortcake.

823 Berry Lane, Monongahela; 724/258-3557;

Trax Farms  

This farm, located 14 miles south of Pittsburgh, allows visitors to pick their own strawberries and hosts a Strawberry Festival (June 10-12): Crowds come with the kids to take advantage of pony rides, a petting zoo, a balloon artist and a tent with children’s activities. A variety of strawberry treats are available, including sundaes, milkshakes, slushies, shortcake and fresh strawberries dipped in milk chocolate. The market, which features freshly grown produce, a bakery, a deli and a gift shop, also sells strawberries during the season.

528 Trax Road, Finleyville; 412/835-3246;

Categories: Eat + Drink Features