Two weeks ago I got to join 17 other Sunday Supper Tastemakers on a weekend trip to Florida to learn about Florida Strawberries. When I was asked to go I jumped at the chance for three reasons. 1. I live in a town that has "Frost" in the name and it gets cold here in the winter. 2. I love strawberries! 3. How could I pass up a good time with my Sunday Supper friends?
I traveled from Pittsburgh to Tampa via JFK airport. I met up with my friend Renee at JFK and we traveled the last leg of our journey to Tampa together. Once at the airport we met up with two other friends and headed to the hotel. When I arrived at my room at Guy Harvey Outpost I could not believe how amazing it was! It wasn't just a room, it was a suite! I had a bedroom, kitchenette, bathroom, sitting room, and even a little balcony overlooking the Gulf!
Since only 3 of us flew in for the event we joined up with Marion and Isabel and headed downstairs in the hotel for a casual dinner. We enjoyed some snacks and sandwiches while we listened to a live band. I just want to say this was January and I was on the beach in a short sleeved shirt and no jacket! It was such a fun evening but I had to turn in early since I left at 5:30 that morning for the airport.
Saturday morning I was up early and ran to lobby to see all of my friend arrive. I greeted old friends and met others that I only knew from our weekly Sunday Supper chats. We boarded a sweet bus and headed from the Florida Strawberry Growers Association in Dover, Florida. Once there we were greeted by Strawberry Sue herself as well as some of her staff.
We learned a bit about the Florida Strawberry Growers Association and then were invited to grab some food. Turns out they had made fresh strawberry mimosas and had some delicious strawberry snacks including an amazing strawberry pizza! We were also given these adorable Strawberry caps! I filled up quickly and then we boarded the bus to Plant City.
Did you know that Plant City, Florida is the winter strawberry capital of the world? How cool is that? Once we arrived at plant city we met with Mark Harrell, Strawberry Sue's husband and a strawberry farmer. We got to visit a farm that was formerly his and one that he was still managing. We learned about the process of planting and gathering the strawberries then he turned us loose in the fields. We got to pick a few strawberries and try them straight off the vine. My oh my were they juicy and delicious!
We then made a quick stop at Grimes Produce Company. While we were there we got to see truckloads of strawberries come in straight from the fields. They are quickly taken off the trucks and put into a giant cooling room to get out the heat from the fields. We got to stand in the cooling room and man was it chilly! After the strawberries are cooled down they are immediately loaded into another truck and are taken to markets all over the United States and Canada the same day!
By this time we had worked up quite an appetite and headed over to Old Towne Pizza. They were ready for us and already had pizzas on the table. I had an incredible deep dish pizza that was out of this world! We also had a strawberry salad with nuts and other goodies that I could have eaten an entire bowl of! It was nice to rest for a bit and enjoy some food but then we were off again!
Our next stop was to University of Florida Research and Education Center. Here we met with Dr. Vance Whitaker in one of their greenhouses. I learned about how they breed the strawberry plants. It's a pretty intense process that involves separating the female and male parts and then breeding them together to create a new strawberry plant. They do numerous trials on each new creation and all the best become a new variety of Florida Strawberries.
Dr. Whitaker also told us that strawberries aren't planted from seeds. Each plant has a runner which is a skinny stem looking thing that sticks out from the plant. This is what is removed and then planted to grow new plants. It was crazy and fascinating to learn about all of this!
We were on our way to dinner when our bus made a detour to Goodson Farms Produce Market. I was excited to stop here because we actually get strawberries from this farm up in Maryland. While I thought we were just stopping to shop I was wrong. Sue and Isabel soon came outside with a huge box filled with strawberry shortcakes topped with ice cream! I didn't want to ruin my dinner but how do you say no to that? I'm glad I didn't because the pound cake, strawberries, and ice cream were all amazing. I couldn't finish this huge dessert but I sure made a good dent in it.
Finally we were on our way to Oggi Italian in Tampa. We arrived to find the entire staff wearing Florida Strawberry caps! It was such a fun way for the staff to greet us and for them to show us they were in support of our group and the strawberries. The tables were set with cute strawberry centerpieces and everything was just perfect. They told us they were serving us family style so we could try a bit of everything.
I have to rave about the cheese. They make their own mozzarella daily and it was the best mozzarella I've ever had. The Strawberry Caprese Salad was so good. It had fresh mozzarella, Florida Strawberries, and basil with a drizzle of olive oil. Then there was a spaghetti and meatballs dish with the biggest meatballs I've ever seen. The meal finished off with cannoli dipped in chocolate chips, coconut, or nuts. The perfect ending to the perfect day.
When I got back to my room that night I was totally stuffed. However, I was in for a surprise when I opened up my refrigerator. There were four huge chocolate covered strawberries in there! I was too stuffed to eat them but I knew I'd be having one for breakfast in the morning. I lay my head down on the pillow and the next thing I knew it was morning.
I wondered downstairs to have breakfast early in the morning. While I was waiting for my food Ellen came down and we enjoyed breakfast together. I had a fresh fruit plate with Florida Strawberries on it and a cup of coffee. We sat outside so we could enjoy the breeze off the Gulf and a view of the water. After breakfast I went up to my room and enjoyed a toffee covered strawberry. It was so delicious!
Sunday we didn't have to travel far. We walked over to TradeWinds Resort and enjoyed a morning with Chef Aaron from RumFish Grill. He showed us how to make a Key West Shrimp and strawberry ceviche. It looked so fresh and delicious and he told us how he comes up with his ideas. After our session we were given a little time to walk around the beautiful resort and then we met up at Bermudas for lunch.
We had the entire restaurant to ourselves which was really nice. They had a strawberry filled menu and I definitely wasn't disappointed! We started off with a grilled watermelon and strawberry salad with citrus dressing that was refreshing and tasty. Then I had a grilled chicken panini with a delicious strawberry aioli. We finished off with a martini glass full of strawberries and spiked whipped cream. It was the perfect meal to showcase strawberries.
Back at our sessions we heard from Anthony Ciecalone, a mixologist from RumFish Grill. He made a strong but tasty strawberry mojito recipe with fresh fruits. We got to try a bit before moving on to a photography session with Jeremiah from Jeremiah Khokhar Photography. We ended our afternoon with a Facebook Live of Strawberry Sue sharing her football dipped chocolate covered strawberries!
We had a short break before the evenings events. I couldn't wait for S'mores on the beach! I went down to the beach a little early and met up with a few other girls. We walked to the water, took some sunset photos, then went to the fire pit. Once there I enjoyed S'mores with strawberries! They were super good and I could have eaten about ten of them but I opted to stick with just two. While there we were gifted these adorable Florida Strawberry necklaces that I've loved wearing! They are fabulous!
But there was no time to rest. We hurried over to RumFish Grill for appetizers, cocktails, and a live Sunday Supper twitter chat. It was a fun atmosphere as the playoff football games were on the big screens, we were outside on a huge deck, and we were all sitting around in a circle on our laptops! It was funny to see all of us so close to the football fans who were totally into the game.
After our twitter chat we were taken into the dining room. One entire wall was taken up by a huge aquarium that was featured on the TV show, Tanked. I was mesmerized by the fish going back and forth. I was also quite taken with the lighted menus the RumFish Grill has.
I enjoyed a delicious chicken dish for dinner but dessert was the real star. We had a hot strawberry crumble with ice cream on top. It was huge but it was delicious. I wish I could have eaten the entire thing. The strawberries were sweet and tart while the crumble was crunchy and the cool vanilla bean ice melted on top of the entire thing. It was a great ending to a really fun weekend.
I had to get up early the next morning to hop on a plane back home but I'm so glad I got to enjoy an amazing weekend filled with friends and Florida Strawberries!