Of fairy berries, and other sweet imperfections

It was hardly an ideal day for a family excursion. We had just returned from a week of visiting family a province over only to spend our first day back out running errands and attending appointments. With the laundry still piled and sleep schedules still in tatters, my house full of introverts were ready to lie low, myself included. Nevertheless, strawberry season was coming to a close: if we wanted to hit a U-Pick this year it would have to be today. Carpe strawberrium - homebody desires would have to be put off yet a few hours more. Saturday morning was booked.

Between sleeping in, grumpy grown-ups' fuzzy-headed preparations, and twin "getting dressed is no fair" tantrums from the younger generation, it was closer to noon than not by the time we reached the strawberry farm. Thankfully, the combination of country driving, car music, snacks and coffee had soothed our ruffled tempers, and we tumbled out into the parking lot in search of instruction and ready for adventure. The staff predicted slim pickings ahead, but that did not deter us from trying our luck. With all the work it took to get here, we weren't about to leave empty-handed. Nevertheless, I put aside my blessedly unuttered dreams of pies and jam and set my sights on finding enough berris to serve fresh over ice cream for the evening's dessert.

We headed off, as directed, to find the "weedy" patch, as the tended one had reportedly been picked clean by earlier risers. Our search took some aimless wandering (both parents being under the assumption that the other was paying attention to the cashier's directions), saying "no" to the farm's various other treats and attractions, and a visit to a precariously full port-a-potty, but we eventually discovered our intended destination.

"Weedy" turned out to be a bit of an understatement; with the second field not ready for their new berry variety when planting-time came, the farm staff had abandoned their rotor-routing plans for the older patch and chose to let the wheat grow along with the deep-rooted tares rather than losing their original berry plants along with the weeds. The result come August looked suspiciously fallow, but, upon closer inspection, we found there were indeed strawberry plants - with berries! - all in rows, but with a veritable prairie's worth of volunteer flora growing thickly around and in between them.

I imagine our visit was more like hunting for wild strawberries than the average U-Pick ranch experience. Oats and wheat weaved between the milkweeds, thistles, and foxtails. Our city-slicker offspring got more of a botany lesson than we'd bargained for, and marveled at the thought of hard green kernels in the grass turning into such domestic staples as bread or Cheerios. Squirreling out the fruit of the intended crop from beneath the intruders was a challenge, but it soon became a game more than a chore. Our eyes adjusted to the task, honing in on traces of ruby speckled behind the duller hues of gold and green. Exclamations of "this is really fun" and "I love picking strawberries" erased the morning's earlier whines and battles as we wandered through the field, scanning for vermillion treasures, and occasionally bending to claim our prize.

Our son was happy to follow his dad row by unruly row, proud to be the holder of the pail, even when there was only a solitary berry under his charge. Our daughter stuck with me, delighted to soak up what knowledge I'd gleaned from the farm's website on the rhythms of the berry patch. First came the king berries, I explained, the largest of the crew, long gone by now, next the mid-sized mid-season bunch which - thanks to this year's late start - had been ripe for the picking in late, rather than mid-, July. Last were the fairy berries, usually ready by August 'long, and the ones were looking for that day: the smallest, and the sweetest, of the season. Good things come to those who wait - or, in our case, those who tarry. The enchantment of fairy dust was just what my girlie needed to jump into treasure hunting gear: soon, she was finding clutches her mother's gaze had missed and rejoicing at every discovery.

Our harvest was fairly meager, as we'd been warned, but we were hardly disappointed. There was already a bumper crop of wild saskatoons packed in our freezer, thanks to an afternoon spent in the bush while visiting my aunt and uncle's lake-house last week. We had strawberries enough for ice cream, plus a few to top our waffles later that weekend. And, unlike the saskatoon bush, where every thought of turning back was met with yet another clutch of plump berries hanging at eye-level, it was easy to look up and leave the strawberry field once our youngest hand had had enough. And by "had enough" I mean he was ready for a nap and late for a trip to the bathroom. Fortunately, I'd remembered to pack him another pair of pants. If anyone looked askance at a small child changing clothes on the picnic table nearest to the parking lot, we didn't notice.

Having never picked strawberries outside of a well-tended garden, I can't say if late-season berries tend to be misshapen, but I rather suspect this particular patch's berry-fairy may have been an imp. The fairy berries we brought home, while indeed small and sweet, were the motliest collection of strawberries that I have ever seen. Some members of our yield bulged around their stumped green ends like a cluster of crimson grapes, others spread out flatly, respecting the nubbly bottom's vertical constraints. There were tiny rounded berries barely peeking out beneath their jagged green skirts, and a smattering of rubicund perfection, just to keep you guessing. We found fruit fit for Alice's wonderland, some suited to Strawberry Shortcake decor, and even a few I could only describe as comically burlesque. I've heard of pĂȘtes de soeurs, but fesses de fraises? Forget the imp; this field fairy was none other than Shakespeare's Puck, playing bawdy tricks for a late summer's noon.

It was a fitting yield for an sweet yet imperfect occasion. It's easy to presume that in making memories we'll manage to create only good ones, but, in reality, that's rarely the case. I'd known better than to expect complete perfection, having had read up recently on a couple other bloggers' experiences of fruit-picking with kidlets, but I'd somehow slipped into to assuming that my own crew would do a little better simply because they're a little older. In some ways that was true - only one child was guilty of plant squashing, and both grasped the definition of ripeness (not that there were many green berries left to confuse them) - but sometimes a bigger child just means a bigger fight. Not to mention a greater likelihood of parents resorting to empty threats of never doing anything fun again if someone didn't brush their teeth. Also, while both children may technically still be carried where they do not wish to go, doing so too often in my current condition requires more chiropractic care than we can afford. I'll need to take more care not to over-schedule ourselves as I near my last trimester.

Our adventure may have been stretched and squashed in ways I hadn't anticipated and marred with the odd sour-berry moment, but I was as happy with the experience as a whole as I was by its flavourful outcome. We all managed to enjoy ourselves despite the set-backs and, thanks to the wildness of the patch, got even closer to nature than I'd hoped. At the end of the day, our ice cream was still topped with that special sweetness that comes from food you picked yourself. Larger rounder berries are maybe easily found in the produce aisle, but they rarely come with a side of adventure.

Next year I hope we'll do better in the berry patch, especially in terms of planning and yield, but I'd say we got quite the story out of our first attempt. My oldest two will have plenty to tell their youngest sibling about the squishy shapes of fairy berries they missed out on by a mere few months.  They didn't notice les fesses de fraises, however, so I decided not to point them out. I saved that one for the internet, complete with pictures so you can hunt for strawberry tushies yourself. No need to thank me, all credit goes to that prairie pixie, Puck ;)


  1. You are SO brave to head out berry-picking after a road trip AND visiting with people. :-) I'd be tempted to hide in my room instead just to recover. :-) But what a gorgeous bounty and such jolly memories you built. :-) I seriously miss Saskatoon berries. They've never heard of those beauties here in Australia. :-)

    1. I'm not sure I felt so much brave as crazy, but sometimes the line between gets pretty thin ;) Saskatoons are a treasure. They're really the one berry that never shows up in grocery stores - if you don't have a source, you do without. Have you tried looking for s'toons under one of their other names? I've heard they're called service berries in the 'States and squash berries in Newfoundland. Perhaps they're out there hiding under a layer of Aussie speak?


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