Sweet delicacies from the Stelvio National Park
In the cycle of Mount Cevedale
Manager of the MEG cooperative which is responsible for quality inspection, packaging and transport of the berries.
When the Plima river fills Martello’s reservoir with Cima Cevedale’s melt water and provides Val Martello with this high oxygen elixir of life, it would also like to moisten the fertile vitamin fields situated on both banks along the steep slopes of the valley. What a wonderful cocktail it would be, if the ice of Cima Cevedale mixed with the natural sugar of red strawberries growing along the Plima river. The 20 strawberry producers from Val Venosta’s side valley, however, prefer using the water from the Ortler massif very carefully and, if possible, with the help of drip irrigation. The strong sun during the harvest period favors the healthy ripening of the fruits and confers them the unmistakable aroma of mountain strawberries. They no longer want to hide under the green leaves and curiously try to get kissed by warm sunbeams all the time. They grow slowly and quietly, as if they didn’t want to disturb the peace of the Stelvio National Park. But maybe they just try to be unobserved and secure from the near forest inhabitants because rodents, birds and different small animals know well about the benefits of the carbohydrates contained in these striking fruits.
The first strawberries growing at an altitude of 900 meters are already ripe in mid-June, whereas those at higher altitudes in Alta Val Martello are harvested until late summer. Do you know how often the diligent strawberry growers in Val Martello can look for their precious mountain strawberries hidden in their fields until all vitamin bombs are harvested? Not just once, but between five and seven times. The red berries shine bright between the green leaves under the sometimes blazing sun during the harvest period. Every strawberry taken from its hiding place is a sight for sore eyes but it’s a very strenuous work that does neither attract many volunteers nor many seasonal workers despite the good pay. This is one of the reasons why the number of strawberry producers has diminished during recent years. The strawberry with its elongated, roundish or cone-shaped form has felt at ease in Val Martello for decades. Perhaps it’s precisely for that reason that it sometimes behaves like a pampered child who doesn’t want to be touched too often.
„When harvesting the berries of some 20 grams each, our members directly put them into the trays for sale. The less you touch these sensitive fruits, the more undamaged they get to the end consumer,“ explains Philipp Brunner, agronomist and manager of the MEG cooperative that celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.
Just as any other beauty, Martello’s exclusive strawberry has its own prestigious festival where it is celebrated and adored: the Strawberry Festival at the end of June, which is some kind of very personal „Strawberry Awards“. The Strawberry Festival represents the start of the strawberry season for both producers and guests enjoying these sweet delicacies. From this moment, all vitamin lovers know that Martello’s strawberries are available again.
The single producers have to deliver flawless strawberries to the cooperative and MEG is then responsible for quality inspection, packaging and transport. VI.P, the Val Venosta Co-operatives Association in Laces, took over the sale of these sweet image carriers rich in vitamins in 2014 because faithful apple clients have also been faithful strawberry hunters for decades. As soon as nature releases the first strawberries in Val Martello, strawberry clients ask for fixed quantities of a constant quality and size – personally or by phone.
„That’s not always easy because our members work at different altitudes. So the fruits ripen at different times and rhythms. Furthermore, our members cultivate various varieties that do not all grow the same way. Last but not least, the weather determines the daily available quantity. You would like to keep your promises given to the clients and even promise them more strawberries but nature decides when they are ripe,“ says Philipp Brunner.
The great range of temperatures between day and night guarantees the typical aroma of mountain strawberries that you can first smell and then taste. But aroma is not equal to sugar. So the strawberries of the first pickings are usually larger and less sweet than those of later pickings. Because as soon as nature decides to produce smaller strawberries, the sugar content increases. But one characteristic is present in every harvest stage: Martello’s mountain aroma.
„The correct harvest time is fundamental. Strawberries have to be harvested when they are fully ripe. Unlike apples or bananas, they can’t ripen after the harvest. If they are harvested green, they remain green. And the clients get extremely angry.“ This is why harvest workers have to be carefully trained.
It’s fascinating how former dairy farmers took the risky decision to grow these vitamin bombs many decades ago and spared no effort. Some of MEG’s members exclusively live on strawberries in summer, others also grow vegetables and other berries or raise cows. They produce about 500 kg of strawberries per inhabitant in Martello in good years, which is too much for the own birthday cake, but often too little for demanding large customers who would like to buy 1,000 kg per day to be able to list Val Martello as a steady strawberry supplier. Competition from Italy and abroad is fierce as far as the quantity is concerned, but when it comes to aroma there are not many competitors left. Thanks to its unique position and its isolated glacier climate the Stelvio National Park has created a natural habitat for strawberries where they feel at ease – an advantage that others can only dream of. But not only Val Martello’s mountain strawberries are an exclusive experience. The same is true for the wonderful landscape of this valley at the foot of the Ortler massif where they grow happily. This happiness is spread every year far beyond the borders of South Tyrol in the form of deluxe strawberries and renewed year by year. In the cycle of Mount Cevedale.