No, you weren't seeing things, those were fresh California strawberries you saw at the grocery store this week. Thanks to a mild fall and an early-bearing new strawberry variety, this year's harvest is one of the earliest--a full two weeks ahead of last year's.
The new berry is the Camarosa, and you'll be seeing a lot of it this year. Though it was only 4% of the commercial crop in 1995, it accounted for more than half of the local strawberries in Southern California last year and may approach the 90% mark this year.
Developed at the University of California at Irvine, it is what the trade calls an early short-day variety. This means that it is early-bearing and doesn't take as many hours of daylight to ripen its fruit.
This means strawberry growers can begin harvesting earlier than before. And if you don't think that's a significant advantage for them, a flat of strawberries is wholesaling for more than $25 today. When the Camarosas really get rolling in mid-January, they'll still be commanding upward of $15. For comparison, in March or April--what used to be the peak of the market--the price of a flat will have dropped to $8 to $10. And when the mid-summer doldrums hit, prices can go as low as $6 to $8.
Earliness is not the only reason growers are swarming to the Camarosa. The berries are also bigger and redder than Chandlers. And because they're firmer than most berries, they're easier to pick, package and ship.
Still, many strawberry lovers have complained that, as great as the new Camarosas might be for growers, they're shortchanging eaters. "They are bulletproof," wrote Ventura's Jerry Mets in a letter to The Times. "Drop not, for fear that you will damage the concrete."
The California Strawberry Commission's Teresa Thorne, an admittedly partisan observer, disagrees. "I don't know why they're getting such a bad rap," she says. "I'm a consumer of strawberries too, and I've had many, many dinners serving both and I think they are both very good-tasting strawberries."