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Up on Maui's Strawberry Mountain
Strawberries are like kids and should be allowed time and space to grow, according to Joel Gil of Coca Farms in Kula on Maui. He manages the growth of his camarosas
, a variety of strawberry favored locally and on the mainland, by watering them infrequently. "If you water them too much, they grow too quickly," he explains, which is why some strawberries have hollow cores, a watery texture, and less flavor. Coca Farm strawberries are solidly built and highly flavored, qualities that are appreciated by top chefs. Chefs like chef Justin Pardo.
Pardo is one of an intrepid trio from New York City behind the popular Market Fresh Bistro in Makawao. The core team consists of Pardo, his sister Olivia, and Olivia's husband David Magenheim. The restaurant is packed regularly and still getting great press, two years after opening. "We sell a ridiculous amount of the breakfast items that include the strawberries," says Magenheim. "We'll go through pounds and pounds. Coca Farm's strawberries--all of their fruits--are extraordinary."
In addition to garnishing every keiki meal, the delectable berries are offered atop Chef Pardo's Belgian waffles, crowned with Tahitian vanilla whipped butter and drizzled with Wailuku honey. The same treatment is given to the equally adored French toast. "We sell out of these items most of the time," says Magenheim.
With a diverse group of suppliers whose products don't exceed demand, the strawberry business isn't a dog-eat-dog world. Most folks in Maui's farming community know each other by name. In nearby Ulupalakua, farmer Tony Rodriguez also grows camarosas.
"They get really sweet and big in about three days, depending on the weather." It's Tony's strawberries that are plated in the bustling kitchen of Mama's Fish House in Paia, a beloved waterfront inn known for its fresh-baked breads, local fish dishes and memorable desserts. Pastry Chef Lezley Jacintoh, a 14-year veteran of the award-winning eatery, wouldn't have it any other way, "We are able to work closely with the farmers. they hand-pick all our strawberries for us." when the crop is at its very best, Jacintoh serves Ulupalakua strawberries with Tahitian vanilla creme. The berries also headline in home-churned sorbets and ice creams, which are made in small quantities by Jacintoh's staff. They garnish Mama's Kuau Pie (chocolate mousse and caramel pie in a cookie crust). They are crushed into sauces and glazes as well, and blended into tropical drinks.
"We also do fruit salsas, which are served with our grilled fish sandwiches," says Jacintoh. The fish, usually ahi, is presented on homemade focaccia with smoked bacon, Haiku tomatoes and upcountry lettuce. The flavor combinations are elevated, each distinct taste enhanced by the fruit salsas. "We always use fresh berries," concludes Jacintoh. "From the mainland...they're picked greener, so they ripen on the way over to us, not on the vine. Here, they're not picked until all of the sugar has developed into the fruit. We get them at the peak of ripeness, at their sweetest."
Tina Monden of Kula Country Farms, Maui's only year-round strawberry producer, explains how to tell when a strawberry is ripe. "You know it's ready to be picked when the shoulders turn from white to red." The "shoulders" of the strawberry are what farmers call the portion closest to the leaf and stem. Tina's husband, Chauncy, contiues, "We plant the best-tasting and the best-growing." Chauncy, who comes from a farming family, always knew he'd want to raise his kids on a farm. Still, his higher education in finance has served him well. Kula Country Farms is a large producer of crops ubiquitous in markets not only on Maui; the Monden's produce can be found throughout the big city of Honolulu, too. As for strawberries, "we sell about a thousand cases per week."
To maximize your stay on Maui, sample all of the fruits of her soil. Upcountry strawberries are some of the best. You'll find them by the container in many Maui markets, including Mana Foods in Paia and Hawaiian Moon in Kihei.