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In strawberry country, it's good to be the queen

VALRICO

The strawberry queen eats her strawberries straight from the basket. Sliced onto pancakes. Topped with whipped cream.

She likes them in the winter, when you can get a good Florida berry fresh from the farms. The strawberry queen is too kind and too regal to show disdain, but she politely passes on California berries in the summer.

She's a Plant City girl, after all.

This is her time: strawberry season, at last. And when you are the strawberry queen, there is glitz. There is glamor.

Forget munching on strawberries reaped from early December harvests. Forget pulling over at farm stands for those thick strawberry shakes that don't make it out of the car.

The strawberry queen starts her season with chocolate-dipped strawberries.

"They're sweet, and the chocolate adds an extra little goodness," said Natalie Burgin, 18, the Strawberry Festival queen.

She lingers by the fancy dipped and striped chocolate strawberries behind glass at the Original Leena's Chocolates in Valrico. This is what she aspires to achieve Monday: a chocolate-covered strawberry worthy of a doily-lined plate.

When you are the strawberry queen, your royal duties do not make you nervous.

She eyes the tray of plump strawberries in front of her: 15 ripe gems with long stems, plucked from plants that morning at Brandon Farms in Dover.

She snaps a plastic glove over her French-manicured hand. She pulls back the leaves like a surgeon and purses her lips as she plunges the berry into a bowl of creamy milk chocolate.

She prefers dark chocolate, but milk chocolate will do.

When you are the strawberry queen, you don't drip chocolate everywhere. You are dainty but professional, dunking strawberries gently but with purpose.

And when you are the strawberry queen, this dipping does not happen in bare feet and overalls.

It happens in a red cocktail dress with a white sash and silver-strapped Lucite heels, in full makeup and, of course, with the crown.

She sets the chocolate-coated strawberries onto the tray carefully, sentimentally, lovingly.

"Strawberries are always perfect," Burgin said. "You never see a bad strawberry."

She is not a strawberry purist, believing chocolate "enhances" the fruit. Chocolate makes strawberries more decadent, more glamorous — like her.

"Strawberries are universal," she said diplomatically. "They love everyone."

When she concludes the chocolate ceremony, sprinkling sparkly red sugar over the now-less-nutritious berries, she presents them on a silver platter.

She could eat about 30 — "I can pack down the berries," Burgin said proudly, hand on her flat stomach — but, as a queen, she allows for just one right now.

She bites carefully into the dessert berry. The chocolate shell presents a challenge, but when you are the strawberry queen, you eat strawberries without smudging your red-rouged lips or staining your strapless dress.

"Delicious," she proclaims, and raises the stem again for the two last bites.

Stephanie Wang can be reached at swang@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

In strawberry country, it's good to be the queen 01/24/11 [Last modified: Monday, January 24, 2011 11:24pm]
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