This time of year, between the Florida State Fair and Florida Strawberry Festival, it's not hard to locate a good slice of strawberry shortcake around town.
But if you really want to call yourself a shortcake expert, you need to hop in a car and head east.
February and March are the peak of our local strawberry season, and from Plant City to Brandon to Riverview, fresh markets are bustling with tourists and locals alike, all seeking some of the freshest, most gut-busting berry dishes in Florida. You'll find strawberry shortcake and milkshakes, of course, but also strawberry pizza, strawberry jam, strawberry cider, strawberry bread and so much more.
One recent day, I mapped out a tour of eastern Hillsborough County's top strawberry markets. You should do the same. Here, follow my lead …
Parkesdale Farm Market
Tampa Bay's best known strawberry market, Parkesdale, is also its most tourist-friendly, offering a ton of strawberry souvenirs in addition to a huge selection of fresh produce, jams, sauces, honeys and, of course, shortcake. On busy mornings (and this time of year, they're all busy mornings), Parkesale's shortcake line is an efficient, well-oiled machine. Adjust the variables as you see fit — whipped topping, vanilla ice cream, sweetened or unsweetened berries — just be prepared to order quickly. The assembly-line production kills a bit of that homespun, handmade feel — our milkshake came pre-made right out of the freezer — but at least you can enjoy your treats in a cool and shaded garden. All all, it's the quintessential Plant City strawberry experience, and everyone should go at least once. Parkesdale Farm Market, 3702 W Baker St., Plant City; (813) 752-0502, parkesdale.com.
Brandon Farms Market
This small farmer's market sits right on State Road 60, but it's got a comfy back-patio vibe that's perfect for a lunchtime escape. Your shortcake comes drowning in a sea of chopped berries and sauce, but if that's not your style, the menu has a few other berry selections, including strawberry pie, chilled tarts in a mini pie crust and strawberry pizza. Yes, pizza. It's a layer of berry slices and sauce layered atop a cheesecake-like spread on a crisp shortbread crust. It's worth ordering for the crust alone; snap off a piece and dip it in sauce or whipped cream, and it's heavenly. Brandon Farms Market, 3931 S.R. 60, Dover; (813) 685-4208.
Collins Farm Fresh Produce
Here's a rare east Hillsborough market that doesn't feel the need to play up its ties to the local strawberry industry. The huge outdoor market sells all types of fresh fruits and veggies, with the strawberry goodies mostly relegated to a small shack in one corner. They, too, serve strawberry pizza, but the sauce a bit too sticky and gelatinous for my taste. However, I'd rate Collins' shortcake and milkshake the best I found on my trip. The shortcake had a ton of topping, but the pillow of cake beneath wasn't drenched in berries. And the milkshake tasted fresh, not artificial, with big chunks of tart, straw-choking berries throughout. Be sure to enjoy its casual country vibe while you can — a brand-new Wawa is about to go up across the street. Collins Farm Fresh Produce, 2810 S.R. 60 E, Valrico; (813) 657-2016.
There's no getting around it: Goodson Farms isn't on the way to or from anywhere. Depending on where you're coming from, you may have to plan your entire day around getting all the way out to Balm. But once you arrive, you can see why tour buses of seniors sometimes line up for the shortcake. The indoor market is clean and comfortable, not unlike a church basement or fellowship hall. Here, too, you can get no-sugar-added berries on your shortcake, but why bother? They top each slice with what seems like an entire canister of whipped topping. Their pizza is also pretty solid, with thick, chunky, fresh strawberries and a sweet cookie-like crust. Yes, it's out of the way, but for any strawberry shortcake completist, it's worth the trip. Goodson Farms, 12405 County Road 672, Balm; (813) 634-7790, facebook.com/GoodsonFarms.