A berry good time in Southern California, Temecula edition

Temecula may be one of California’s best-known wine regions, but I’ll always remember it for something else: the fresh fruit we harvested on a recent visit to this out-of-the-way Southern California destination.

That’s right, we saw the horde of tourists go one way, and we went in the other direction.

Being a contrarian in Temecula

There’s a trick to being an effective contrarian, especially in a place like Temecula. While everyone else is sampling wine, you’re hiking. While the tourists are polishing off the second bottle of Chardonnay at dinner, you’re already tucked in bed at your vacation rental, listening to the coyotes howling in the darkness. And while the other visitors are sleeping off their hangover, you’re watching the hot air balloons rise majestically in the valley below.

Blueberry picking in Temecula

Since this area is known for its agriculture — specifically, its grapes — we stayed close to Temecula’s roots. We had to stop at the Temecula Berry Company to try some of its early season blueberries. It’s a 10-acre, family-owned farm planted with several varieties, including Jewel, Emerald, and Southmoon blueberries.

How do you tell the berries apart? I have no idea, even after they explained it. They say Jewel blueberries are exceptionally tart, while Emeralds are sweeter and Southmoons have a more robust flavor. I’m no blueberry connoisseur, but they all tasted the same to me: delicious.

An exercise in patience

Blueberry harvesting is an exercise in patience. You have to find a row of blueberry bushes on the far end of the farm and hunt for the ripe berries. When you do, each one must be hand-picked. There’s a thin film of dust on each ripe berry, also called bloom, a waxy material the plant produces to protect itself from sunlight and to retain moisture. A ripe berry has bloom and falls off the vine with practically no effort.

After half an hour of patient picking, one by one, my 10-year-old daughter announced she was done and that she wanted to visit the petting zoo, where she could feed the baby goats.

“Don’t you want to fill the rest of the bucket with blueberries?” I asked her.

“No,” she replied. “You do it.”

Blueberry pancakes!

I did, and since I had all the quarters for goat feed, she stayed and cheered me on — “No, dad, not that one!” Our reward came later in the day when my 12-year-old made blueberry pancakes back at our vacation rental. Ah, the benefits of traveling with kids!

For more instant gratification, you have to pick strawberries. The place to do that is Kenny’s Strawberry Farm in nearby Rainbow, Calif.

Picking strawberries is pretty much instant gratification, compared with blueberries. We arrived on a cool, cloudy morning and scattered into the field.

“Pick the red ones”

“Pick the red ones,” an employee advised, pushing green containers into my kids’ hands. OK, we knew that — red means ripe — but aren’t there shades of red? How red does it need to be?

Fortunately, we’d come at the perfect time. “The strawberries have just turned ripe,” owner Kenny Fietz confided.

No kidding.

We wandered the rows of strawberries and were met with a barrage of red, redder and reddest. (Pro tip: Go for the medium reds; the dark reds are probably overripe.) Our boxes were full within about five minutes.

“Dad,” my 14-year-old son, Aren, exclaimed. “These are the best strawberries ever.” He couldn’t help himself and had eaten one. In the interests of journalism, I tried one, too.

I’ve picked strawberries all over the world, and these were quite possibly the best I’ve ever had — a magical blend of sweet and tart. We happily paid $15 for almost four pounds of strawberries. I didn’t think we would finish them, but they were gone within 24 hours.

We learned a lot about how to pick and keep strawberries. Don’t wash them in water until you’re ready to enjoy them. And always refrigerate them. I made the mistake of leaving one or two strawberries on on the counter overnight, and they didn’t last.

Temecula’s food scene

All of this is a roundabout way of saying Temecula takes its food seriously, and that extends to its restaurants. When we weren’t parked at the public library, where two of our kids were scrambling to finish the last of their schoolwork, we strolled through Temecula’s downtown area on Front Street, a collection of antique stores, museums, and gift shops.

But just off the beaten path, we also discovered a terrific food scene on 5th Street, including authentic Cuban fare at Havana Kitchen, the incredible Italian fusion at Palumbo’s Ristorante (try their jalapeño cream sauce) and the artisanal deli sandwiches created at the Goat & Vine.

If you have only one meal to eat in Temecula, make it dessert at Palumbo’s. Ask for one of their fresh baked cookies with ice cream. You’ll thank me. It’s totally worth the detour.

When you think of Temecula, you might think of the wine or expensive Southern California real estate, but for us, we’ll always think of the fresh fruit and innovative restaurants. Visit in late May or early June, before the other tourists arrive, and bring your appetite.

You’ll need it.

If you go …

What to do
When you’re done picking berries, check out the Temecula Children’s Museum, also known as Professor Pennypickles’ Workshop. The old mansion is filled with interactive exhibits that help kids discover science through play. For a little history on Temecula, visit the nearby Temecula Valley Museum, which walks you through the fascinating history of the region.

Where to stay
We found a terrific rental through HomeAway overlooking the Temecula Valley, a guest house attached to one of the large mansions. But there are any number of excellent lodging options in town, from bed and breakfasts to chain hotels.

Where to eat
The downtown Temecula area is filled with restaurants, each one better than the one before. After our trip to Palumbo’s for dessert, we spent a lot of time downtown (the Starbucks on the far end has the strongest Wi-Fi signal, better than the Temecula Public Library). For great burgers, we also discovered Burger Lounge, a Southern California chain that serves only burgers made from grass-fed beef. Their salads are really good, too.

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