How much would you pay for the perfect strawberry?
A new variety of berry has been catching attention in restaurants around New York, where chefs are taking advantage of the grower’s proximity to serve up something very special to guests. Called the “Omakase berry” and grown by New Jersey operation Oishii, the strawberries — which are a Japanese variety known for its “beautiful aroma and exceptional sweetness” with a seedless exterior and “creamy texture” — are so unique that they charge $50 for a hand-picked package of eight, each berry nestled in its molded slot in a chic transparent container. (A pound of strawberries in the grocery store — about 15 to 20 berries — will run you somewhere in the $5 range, for comparison. That means just one Oishii berry is more than your average container.)
Chefs — like pastry star and cronut originator Dominque Ansel — are willing to shell out, however. For Chef Kazushige Suzuki of Michelin-starred Sushi Ginza Onodera, which serves a pair of the strawberries as a dessert in part of a multi-course, high-end tasting menu, they are unique enough to be worth the cost. (At Aldea, the strawberries can be found as a garnish on a rice pudding dessert; at Atomix, they’re ingredients in a fancy palate cleanser.) “They are unlike any other strawberry you’ve tasted,” according to Suzuki. “There is a great balance between sourness and sweetness. These strawberries are much bigger than the regular variety found in the U.S. and much sweeter too, much fuller in flavor.”
He says most U.S. strawberries pale in comparison to those found in Japan, but Oishii is trying to change that, recently made possible by their choice of variety and their year-round indoor vertical farming methods. “I’m excited that by sourcing locally, we get Japanese quality,” he says. A representative for Oishii tells TIME they’ve been “perfecting growth” of their Omakase berry for over three years, making use of a decade of information from their Japanese research center. This particular variety can only grow in winter in Japan in a “thin slice of land;” the U.S. operation has recreated those conditions in an indoor setting, which they say enables the strawberries to ripen at an “ideal speed” for extra sweetness. To put that perspective, one brand of extra-large specially-produced Japanese strawberries will run for over $4,000 a pop.
Meanwhile, strawberries are certainly not the only fruit that comes in “designer” style: lately, apples have gotten the upgraded treatment. Grapes are sold in “cotton candy” flavor. Some bananas have edible peels. And melons are an art, with some selling in Japan for many thousands of dollars. (Suzuki is definitely interested in the potential to add melon to his menus: “We insist on the same quality here in New York as in Tokyo,” he says, which means they fly in their fish from Japan — and maybe, someday, melons too.)
But why should we pay attention to these couture culinary delights? And what can they say about our food supply and consumption in the U.S. when we’re away from the rarefied land of restaurant tasting menus?
When it comes to produce, Americans have become accustomed to what we find in supermarkets, explains Marvin Pritts, Professor of Horticulture at Cornell’s School of Integrative Plant Science. And what supermarkets stock tends to be what they can sell with ease and consistency; a pesky thing like flavor is secondary. “Consumer demand for a year-round supply of everything makes it challenging for supermarkets to provide consumers with consistently good-tasting fruits and vegetables — so they try to make everything generic,” he says.
Fruits like bananas, kiwi and avocados exist in thousands of varieties, but we usually only find one kind in stores. And since supermarkets limit us from taste-testing before we buy, it’s become more of a game of judging produce by its cover — not by what’s inside. “Breeders have selected for appearance, but oftentimes flavor lags behind or is ignored,” he explains to TIME. “The Red Delicious apple was once quite flavorful, but over the years more highly-colored mutations were selected so that apples started to ‘look’ red and ripe when they were still under-ripe.” For strawberries, it’s what lies within that counts; you want to find one that’s red all the way through — although we don’t normally have the ability to cut into one before buying.
Another misconception some believe is that bigger is better, Pritts says. But that’s not necessarily the case: “For example, all of the flavor in the blueberry is in the skin.” Smaller berries, just by virtue of surface area to interior ratio, are going to have more taste. “We’ve essentially traded consistent flavor for convenience on both the supply and demand side,” Pritts notes. “A very American approach to food!”
Setting itself apart, Oishii says its luxury strawberries are picked and delivered in the same day, in an effort to maximize the ripeness for each consumer. In contrast, about 90% of strawberries consumed in the U.S. are grown in Mexico, California or Florida, Pritts says, which means they have to be able to withstand long shipping journeys. To do so, they’re harvested before they’re fully ripe. And bigger berries are preferred by regular growers, since they fill containers more quickly and therefore cut down on labor costs. Although known to be large, the fact that the Omakase berries are sold as a set number and not by weight means they don’t innately prioritize bigger, potentially flavor-reducing size.
Of course, something like the Omakase berry is — by nature — an exclusive product with a limited market. Americans eat about a trillion pounds of strawberries a year; Oishii couldn’t keep up with that, even if they wanted to. And plant factory growing costs are high. Yet consumers have expressed interest in new varieties of fruits that come to market, like the Cosmic Crisp apple.
So innovations like the Omakase berry are only encouraging: Pritts says we should be excited about “anything that contributes to people eating more fruits and vegetables.” Per capita consumption has actually fallen in the U.S. in the last few years, despite efforts to focus on healthier eating nationally. The Omakase berry isn’t going to change that, but it’s one example of the richness of agricultural options out there just waiting to be explored — and devoured.
In the meantime, if a $50 set of eight berries delivered directly to you at a pickup spot in downtown Manhattan is not in the cards, Pritts suggests checking out local farms and picking your own fruit. This could be a blessing in disguise, as it will expose consumers to what really good fruit can taste like,” he said. Or you can try your luck at Sushi Ginza Onodera, where you can finish off Chef Suzuki’s meal with a set of berries. Simple, but effective.