Just-picked Florida strawberries are cropping up in far more places than the grocery stores, produce stands and farmers’ markets that have typically stocked the bright-red, juicy fruit from December through March — thanks to a promotion by strawberry growers and Tampa-area chefs.
Consumers hungry for berries harvested in Plant City — Winter Strawberry Capital of the World — now have new venues where they can find their favorite fruit, prepared in some surprising ways. This locally sourced ingredient is increasingly showing up on menus in Tampa Bay restaurants as well as in microbreweries.
Eager to expand demand for their celebrated winter crop, members of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association (FSGA) worked with At the Table Public Relations of Tampa to cultivate partnerships with local chefs and microbreweries.
Program prompts cooperation
Now in its third year, the collaboration has provided culinary professionals with more than just strawberries. It has prompted chefs to visit strawberry fields, to personally pick berries, and even to participate in social-media videos promoting the fruit.
Building consumer awareness and encouraging chefs to discover new ways to add the delicious flavors of fresh-from-the-farm berries to their signature cuisines has produced a great benefit: The public has been treated to tempting entrées, desserts and small-batch craft beers that otherwise might not have been available.
“We wanted to give these partners that hands-on experience and first-hand knowledge about what goes into growing strawberries to help inspire them to create exciting and enticing new ways for consumers to enjoy strawberries,” says Sue Harrell, director of marketing for the FSGA.
Ulele, a restaurant owned by the Gonzmart family, of Columbia Restaurant fame, was the first dining establishment recruited to develop specialty strawberry-centric dishes and drinks that have been featured on its menu for limited times during the harvest season.
Partnership with strawberry growers “a perfect marriage”
“Three years ago, we joined with the Florida Strawberry Growers Association (floridastrawberry.org) on a new program to feature Fresh From Florida® strawberries at Ulele,” says its executive chef, Eric Lackey. “We felt it was a perfect marriage. The growers produce the fresh fruit — and Ulele specializes in food featuring fresh, not frozen, ingredients, since Ulele has no freezers.”
“Like the Columbia Restaurant Group, many strawberry growers are multigenerational family businesses. And, as a restaurant stressing local, we know we can’t get much more local than these strawberries,” he adds.
In addition, Ulele Spring Brewery’s brewmaster crafted a special Honeymoon Lager strawberry beer that is being produced in the restaurant’s on-site brewery.
Goody Goody, a former landmark diner rejuvenated and re-branded by Columbia Restaurant President Richard Gonzmart, is a local favorite famous for its fresh-baked pies. Earlier in February, a special Florida Strawberry Pie was sold by the piece and by the pie.
Innovation pays off
“We challenged Chef Lackey and our brewmaster, Tim Shackton, to get creative. They certainly did. We used strawberries in a limited-release craft beer, ice cream, entrées, desserts – even a strawberry pie that we served at our newest restaurant, Goody Goody. Our guests’ response to all has been fantastic,” Gonzmart says.
First-time promotional program participant Joe Di Bartolo, chef and owner of OGGI Italian restaurants, updated a traditional Italian recipe using the signature fruit. He added a roasted chicken entrée, served with a house-made strawberry-balsamic reduction that is being featured during February. It proved to be every bit as popular as the house-made pasta dishes his customers normally devour.
“The Italian name for the strawberry dish is Pollo al Forno Fragloa. Once a customer tries it, they tell me how delicious it is and that they will definitely order it again. It is our privilege to share this old Italian recipe using fresh Florida strawberries,” notes Di Bartolo.
FIVE FUN FACTS ABOUT HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY STRAWBERRIES*
1. Plant City is where strawberries are most commonly grown in Hillsborough County (a total of 10,500 acres are planted in Hillsborough County).
2. During the 2015-16 growing season, 204.5 million pounds of strawberries were marketed from Florida, with most of the harvest occurring in Hillsborough County.
3. The harvest begins in November and runs through late March or early April.
4. Varieties include the Radiance, Sensation, Winterstar and Festival.
5. The Florida Strawberry Festival, set for March 2-12 in Plant City, has taken place annually since 1930, except for six years during and immediately after World War II (flstrawberryfestival.com).