Greenhouses, jam-packed with redI’ve always thought that the color scheme of winter was a beautiful blend of whites with bits of red and green. But last weekend, I found that the patina of winter comes in different proportions as spring approaches.
On a sunny but chilly Saturday, I went to a strawberry field in Namyangju, Gyeonggi province, where the aroma of fresh strawberries ― or maybe it was the scent of their white flowers ― filled my nose. The farm’s owner, Lee Seong-joon, and his wife, Jang Bok-soon, greeted the 80 or so visitors, half of which were very young children who were excited to get their hands dirty picking red, ripe strawberries in a plastic green house.
Before entering the greenhouse, Mr. Lee laid down the house rules: “Do not eat the strawberries inside the green house. If you toss away the strawberry stems, the plants can be contaminated by a virus [from your mouth],” Mr. Lee said. As the plants are grown organically, they can easily be contaminated by viruses, he added. “If a virus hits the plants, the field will be covered with mold.
“Also, if you touch a strawberry, you have to pick it, no matter what,” he added, explaining that the berries can also be contaminated by human hands.
After hearing the warnings a couple of times, we were finally allowed to enter the greenhouse with a small basket. Mr. Lee explained how to pick the strawberries.
“Hold the strawberry between your index finger and middle finger, like this,” Mr. Lee instructed us, with his palm facing the ceiling. “And snap the strawberry just by bending your wrist.” When it snaps, it makes the same sharp cracking noise that happens when you open a bottlecap. The kids weren’t the only ones enticed by the sounds; parents who had complained of bad backs threw themselves on the ground to pick the berries.
One boy was disappointed when he couldn’t make the strawberries snap and asked Mr. Lee what the problem was. The problem, he was told, was probably that the berries he had picked weren’t ripe enough. “The clearer the sound, the more ripe the fruit, and the sweeter,” Mr. Lee said.
It’s a bit early to harvest strawberries, so many were either a yellowish-green color or were tiny and undeveloped. Mr. Lee said he planted the strawberry stalks in September and started picking them a few days before our visit ― the picking usually lasts until May. Wild strawberries are often at their ripest in late spring or early summer, with the picking starting in May.
“The harvest season is whenever I think it is,” Mr. Lee joked.
He uses subterranean water that flows from the mountain behind the farm and runs through the greenhouse to the southern upper stream of the Han River. The water is heated to about 15 degrees centigrade (59 Fahrenheit), he said. He only allows the water to flow into the greenhouse in the evening; the inside temperature must stay above 10 degrees and will rise as high as 30 degrees during the day. “Before planting, I put the stalks in the refrigerator to cool them down,” Mr. Lee said.
When asked how to buy good strawberries, Mr. Lee said the fruit should be “good looking,” being shaped like an inverted cone with a chubby waist; its color should be “strawberry red” and glossy, and the green leaves on the cap should point upward.
“Per 100 grams (3.5 ounces), strawberries have 25 times more vitamin C than apples,” said Kim Yang-ha, a professor at the Food and Nutritional Science Department at Ewha Womans University. “It’s best to eat the strawberry without washing it, so it won’t destroy the vitamins in it.”
Eat unwashed fruit?
Mr. Lee said his strawberries could be eaten without washing, because no chemical fertilizers or pesticides were applied. Also since the roots had been covered with black plastic vinyl, the berries weren’t covered in soil. Those who still aren’t comfortable with the idea can wash the berries in water with a little salt.
After harvesting a basket full of the stuff, we came back to Mr. Lee’s house, part of which was set aside for jam-making. We removed the inedible parts, washed the meaty parts and then put them in a tub. “When you make the jam, remember to keep a 10-to-six ratio of strawberries to sugar,” Ms. Jang said. After pouring in the berries and sugar, stir it with a large flat spoon until the mixture boils down into a sticky liquid. Some kids ran over to feed the green bits to the rabbits, while other kids surrounded the tub, demanding to stir it. Not only was the spoon very heavy, there were too many strawberries, and parents had to help the kids stir. Ms. Jang told people not to crush the berries, reminding them that it’s good to taste a lump in the jam later.
“Don’t add water when you make jam,” she added. “If you add water, the color of jam gets lighter and it doesn’t taste so good.”
It took about two hours to make the jam out of 20 kilograms of strawberries and 12 kilograms of sugar. It was enough to provide each adult with a 300-gram jar (other groups might get more, or none at all).
“It’s really sweet,” said a middle-aged woman who sampled the jam on a slice of bread. She said when she made jam at home, she put in as much sugar as she did strawberries, but both recipes were equally sweet. “I think that’s because the strawberries are really sweet,” she said.
Namyangju’s greatest son still looks over its fields
While some stayed at the house, stirring strawberries to make jam, others walked around the banks of the southern Han River or visited Dasan Memorial Hall. Both are within walking distance from the farm.
The memorial hall comprises Dasan Jeong Yak-yong’s place of birth, tomb and a museum. Dasan (1762-1836) was a great scholar of practical science during the late Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). He wrote a number of books on popular policies. He’s also famous for inventing a crane used to build a fortress in Suwon, Gyeonggi province in 1796. The memorial hall is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., from Tuesdays to Sundays.
by Park Sung-ha
How to get there: By train, depart from Cheongnyangni Station, eastern Seoul, and head to Neungnae Station. From the station, it takes 15 minutes to go to Dasan Memorial Hall. Daega Farm is just across from the gate. By car, take the Olympic Expressway east, passing through Misari and go across the Paldang Bridge. After passing Paldang dam, take a right turn just after passing under the land bridge toward Dasan Memorial Hall.
The strawberry field trip costs 20,000 won per person, including a 500-grams of jam and lunch, or 13,000 won without jam. Call the farm at least a day before to see if they have enough strawberries to pick. Call (031) 576-6955/8367.
You can also join a package tour by Thema Camp that also includes a trip to Dumulmeori, where the northern upper stream of the Han River meets its southern counterpart, and to Nami Island, Gangwon province.