Sunday is National Strawberry Ice Cream Day. And although it may be a made up holiday, that doesn’t mean there’s no reason to celebrate — especially for folks in the Pacific Northwest.
Oregon may not grow the most strawberries in the country (California has that distinction by a long shot), but we certainly grow some of the best. That’s thanks in part to a one-of-a-kind cooperative berry breeding program that’s more than 100 years old. Since 1917, this collaboration between Oregon State University and the USDA Agricultural Research Service has been behind some of the most iconic strawberries in the state. Both Hood and Tillamook strawberry varieties were developed right here in Oregon.
But the vast majority of strawberries being grown here never see a farmers market stand or grocery aisle. “Our industry has always been a processing industry, so that makes our strawberry cultivars really unique, having traits that are exceptional for processing,” says Bernadine Strik, professor emeritus for the Department of Horticulture at Oregon State University.
Processing varieties are bred to have an intensity in color, flavor and acidity. That’s because they’re often used in things like jam, yogurt, and of course, strawberry ice cream. And if something is being frozen or used within another food, the flavor needs to be even more exceptional and intense than normal. And since there is no travel time to your store, the strawberries are picked at peak ripeness and frozen immediately to use.
Ice cream maker Häagen-Dazs is said to only use specific Oregon strawberry varieties — Hoods and Totems — chosen by the brand’s co-founder Reuben Mattus for their ice cream. But hometown ice cream heroes like Tillamook, Salt & Straw, and Fifty Licks all use Oregon strawberries as well.
“There’s no berries like what’s growing here in the Pacific Northwest,” says Tyler Malek, the co-founder and head ice cream maker at Salt & Straw. “Especially Oregon berries, there’s so much density in flavor.”
And each year, Salt & Straw goes through 50,000 pounds of strawberries, much of which is used in one of their signature flavors: Strawberry Honey Balsamic with Black Pepper. It was the fourth flavor Salt & Straw ever created, back in 2011 when they served ice cream out of a pushcart on Northeast Alberta Street in Portland.
“This flavor has very much put us on the map,” he said. “We didn’t quite realize when we were making it how important this would be for the future of our company.”
Strawberries are the centerpiece for the ice cream, which uses a traditional Italian flavor trinity as its jumping off point. Serving strawberries with balsamic vinegar is a classic dessert in the Emilia-Romagna region in northern Italy, where balsamic vinegar originates from.
“Black pepper, balsamic vinegar, and strawberries are so perfect together because you actually enhance the acidity with the vinegar,” Malek said. “Then you balance out that perfume quality of the strawberry with a really fresh grind black pepper.”
It’s a mix of flavors as surprisingly complex as the strawberries they highlight.