Why these chocolate-covered strawberries merit a drive to Massachusetts

BRATTLEBORO — Emily turned 16 last week. There are many things a 16-year-old might want for her birthday, including an iPad, an iPod, or a smartphone. One thing you wouldn't expect a teenager to request: a strawberry.

No, “strawberry” is not the new BlackBerry. We're talking about a strawberry, and not just any strawberry. If you'll notice, I used the singular form to describe her request. We'll get to that. For now, please consider a 16-year-old girl requesting a strawberry as her birthday gift.

Welcome to Richardson's Candy Kitchen, at 500 Greenfield Road in Deerfield, Mass., home of the famous chocolate-covered strawberry, the Holy Grail of delicacies. If you're not yet familiar with them, you have a brief time to become acquainted, luck and weather permitting.

These rare birds appear for a few weeks only, at the height of strawberry season. They're available each day until they sell out, and they do - quickly.

What makes these strawberries so special? We've all enjoyed a chocolate-covered strawberry along the way. I mean, how good could these be? Actually, several qualities contribute to their amazingness. These strawberries diligently practice the FARE WELL philosophy-Fresh, Ripe, Whole, and Local.

At the height of strawberry season they're picked fresh each morning at Teddy Smiarowski Farm in Hatfield, Mass., just a few miles down the road, and delivered promptly.

As soon as they arrive, they are swiftly prepared, all together, for peak flavor and uniformity. They are lovingly placed in an adorable “itsy, bitsy, teeny, weeny, pinky, polka-dot bikini” paper holder. Around 11 a.m. they're presented to the public with pride. They're snapped up within hours.

* * *

Richardson's chocolate-covered strawberries are huge! You might barely hold two in the palm of your hand. Sometimes typically small fruit sacrifices flavor for size, and that can happen with strawberries, but these berries are ginormous and juicy. They burst in your mouth and retain the integrity of their shape, gently coaxing your mouth to plow through to the other side of the bite, where your teeth meet.

Their sweetness holds a hint of tangy acidity, tickling your tongue. And the scent. Dear Mary, the scent. Like a perfectly aromatic tomato whiffed immediately after plucking, these strawberries explode with giddy joy into your nostrils and swirl magically up your sinuses, filling you with dizzying ecstasy.

And it's not just the strawberry that intoxicates.

These magical morsels are double-dipped, first in a fondant - a simple, white, sugar glaze, like the top of a Napoleon - and next in dark chocolate. It's pure, dense, and buttery-rich, and not too sweet, so that the fondant counterbalances the tender, bitter bite-back of the dark master.

The combination is a symphony of texture, sensual smells, contrasting colors, and complex, sweet sensations that fully engage the taste buds.

* * *

You think I'm laying it on thick, I can tell. I see you rolling your eyes as you read this. But trust me; this is a once-in-a-year phenomenon, like the supermoon or a Perseid meteor shower.

If you don't believe me, ask around. These masterpieces have held court in our valley for quite some time. Richardson's opened in 1954 and began offering their strawberries around 1973. They are a family owned business, trading hands around 1983 to the Woodwards.

I spoke with their daughter, Kathie Williams, who runs the store. Kathie was 18 when her parents took over, and recalls eating the strawberries, as her own children do now. Her niece Emily (the 16-year-old) loves them so much that she requests them each year for her birthday.

And every year around June, my son reminds me that “it's berry time.” If you're acquainted with any 20-year-old males, you'll appreciate how unusual that type of behavior is.

Richardson's chocolate-covered strawberries are wonderful treats at parties and picnics, and make awesome gifts for teachers. I can imagine them being the highlight of the dessert table at a family reunion or special summer gathering.

(They're likely gone by the Fourth of July, so celebrate the holiday early with these gustatory fireworks.)

Fans come from all over the country. One Texan visits yearly. That makes sense, as these babies are as big as Dallas. People come regularly, and some patrons visit daily. They keep a keen watch on the “strawberry report,” waiting for that first day. I join that particular breed of devotees, e-mailing Kathie several times to confirm the ETA and secure my order.

Strawberries are available from mid- to late June, depending on Mother Nature. Richardson's sells chocolate-covered frozen bananas and autumnal caramel-apples. Naturally, Richardson's Candy Kitchen sells all things candy: fresh, homemade, delicious candy.

Somehow I manage to wolf down a few salted caramels among three strawberries. Hey, when in Rome...

You'll be so grateful you picked up this paper today. Keep a close eye on its website. When you see the polka-dotted behemoths pictured, immediately call in sick from work. Yank the kids from school. Remove elderly parents from the nursing home. Pile everyone into the car, and get your lucky butts down to Deerfield. No one is too young or too jaded for this annual pilgrimage.

* * *

One final note: Emily didn't receive her birthday strawberry last year, as the red beauties sold out before she could get her hands on one. How dedicated the Woodwards are to their customers! So when you make your trip down, remember our birthday girl and buy her a gift, Richardson's style!

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates