Family works berry well

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Haley McMahon is just back in Hamilton after living in Australia for a while. For her first dinner home there was an abundance of strawberries: in a salad, with a chocolate and coffee bean dip, even a strawberry and blueberry tart.

The McMahons, from left, Haley, Emma, Kate and Gary, at The Strawberry Farm
The McMahons, from left, Haley, Emma, Kate and Gary, at The Strawberry Farm (Photo: Bruce Mercer, Waikato Times)

“I hadn’t had strawberries for a long time, ” she says. “I was very excited.”

Haley was well placed to enjoy these summer treats. Her parents, Gary and Pam McMahon, own The Straw Berry Farm, on Newell Rd, Tamahere, and their summer season is in full swing, writes Denise Irvine of the Waikato Times.

Strawberries are a family business for the McMahons, and Haley has returned to be part of it. The crew – Pam and Gary, and their daughters Haley, Emma and Kate – assemble at an outdoor table, step through their story, with the lush red fruits that we’re talking about flourishing in the nearby paddocks.

Fortunately, all the McMahons love strawberries, and still enjoy the pleasure of walking outside on a sunny day, eating them while they’re warm. Says Pam: “Even if we’re going on a trip somewhere we’ll grab a punnet to eat on the way. They’re just a beautiful fruit.”

Although they enjoy them dipped in chocolate, they mostly have them served naturally in a bowl. “The best way, ” says Pam, “with no icing sugar in sight.”

Emma runs The Country Providore store at The Straw Berry Farm, selling chic gifts and homewares, comestibles, fresh fruit (strawberries, of course) and vegetables, and their world-famous-in-the-Waikato berry ice creams.

Haley’s taken up the reins at the farm’s Punnet cafe, along with partner Gabe Davies, who is a barista, both of them working with head chef Nicole John and executive chef Julie Sokolsky. You can count on strawberries being on their menu.

Kate, the youngest daughter, will be running an icecream trailer this summer that she and Emma have set up, selling berry icecreams and fresh berries to holiday crowds at beaches on the Coromandel and at Mt Maunganui.

Central to it all are their sweet red camarosa strawberries, a large, firm variety they favour for its good yields, good shelf-life and great flavour. The McMahons bought their business about 10 years ago, they’ve got 0.6ha in plantings and will pick almost 50 tonnes this season. They also have a block of raspberries at Matangi.

They sell from their own property, but also at Cambridge and Hamilton farmers’ markets, a Thames market, summer beach markets, through Turners & Growers, and they also do pick-your-own.

Their season kicked off a bit early this year, at the end of September. They’ll go through to about the end of February, then they’ll start pulling them out, replanting for the next round.

While some people are wary of early- season strawberries, believing they need more intense sunshine for perfect flavour and ripeness, Gary reckons this is a myth. He says there’s not a huge difference as the season moves on. Their fruit has been good from the get-go. Christmas supplies seem fine. “We will have plenty of strawberries.”

Christmas Eve is big for the McMahons, as customers roll in for the festive staple, picked fresh on the day. Many people pre-order, but there are still heaps who turn up in search of fruit.

The family is on duty by 7am. Haley’s job on previous Christmases has been to hand out the pre-orders, wishing people a “berry Christmas” or some other suitably cheesy one-liner. They do about 800 kilograms in pre-orders, another 600kg to 800kg in walk-in sales. A couple of years ago they had a surplus, and donated it to the Salvation Army’s Christmas lunch.

Can they face strawberries on Christmas Day? Most certainly. Apparently their rellies would disown them if they turned up somewhere without the red treats. Gary and Pam recall one Christmas when they accidentally left the strawberries in the chiller. “We never lived it down.”

Punnet's Strawberry Tart - recipe below (Photo: Bruce Mercer,  Waikato Times)
Punnet’s Strawberry Tart – recipe below (Photo: Bruce Mercer, Waikato Times)

PUNNET’S STRAWBERRY TART

Punnet’s executive chef, Julie Sokolsky, shares the cafe’s signature strawberry tart recipe. Other goodies to look out for include buttermilk pancakes with strawberry compote; grilled free-range chicken with strawberry salad and poppyseed dressing; creme fraiche panna cotta with vincotto strawberries; buttermilk shortcake with fresh strawberries and tarragon whipped cream; and limoncello tiramisu with strawberries and cream.

Ingredients

Base:
1 1/2 cups finely crushed digestive biscuit crumbs
1/4 cup caster sugar
1/2 cup butter, melted

Filling:
1/4 cup cream
1/4 cup mascarpone cheese
1/4 tsp vanilla essence
3 Tbsp caster sugar

To finish:
2-3 punnets fresh strawberries
apricot jam

Mix all the base ingredients together until mixture clumps when pressed. Lightly grease a 23cm tart tin with a removable bottom. Pat crumb mixture into the tin, creating even, straight sides. Chill for 1/2 hour to set.

Whip all filling ingredients together with an electric beater until mixture resembles thick whipped cream.

Spoon mascarpone mixture into chilled tart base. Pile on the strawberries, whole or sliced. Melt a little apricot jam and use a pastry brush to paint a thin layer over the strawberries.

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