By David Karp
12:15 PM PDT, August 10, 2012
Most California apples are grown either well north of Los Angeles, in mountains, or near the coast, where cool winters and nights boost production and quality. Ojai, atrociously hot in summer, is better known for its citrus, but in some of its valleys where cold air pools, the microclimate is surprisingly suitable for apples, which were grown there on a modest scale in decades past. The possibility was clear on Monday when Cecilio Marquez and his crew harvested Galas from an 8-acre orchard, leased from a couple who bought the property from Otis Chandler, publisher of The Times from 1960 to 1980.
The trees are healthy and beautifully manicured, pruned each year to be accessible without ladders. They bore explosively crisp and juicy fruit with good color and flavor, although a Washington grower probably would not be impressed by the tonnage.
A cross of Golden Delicious and Kidd's Orange Red developed in New Zealand in the 1930s, Gala is small to medium in size, with an attractive pink to red stripe over a yellow background and dense, sweet, mildly aromatic flesh. One of the earliest good-quality varieties, it increased greatly in popularity in recent decades to become second in the United States behind Red Delicious. In California, where most of the crop is grown in the Stockton area, it trails Granny Smith but may well overtake it within a few years, said Alex Ott of the California Apple Commission.
Marquez, 49, immigrated from Jalisco, Mexico, in 1981 and worked at Rancho Vista del Mundo, which grew subtropical fruit and sold it at farmers markets. Around 2000 he bought two properties in Carpinteria and Goleta, which he was proud to show off to his father, who named the farm Rancho Santa Cecilia just a year before he died.
Marquez now cultivates 75 acres, including excellent avocados, which because they are coastally grown reach peak quality in late summer and fall (when Fallbrook Hass can be rancid) and are reasonably priced at $5 for 6 medium fruit. In winter his cherimoyas, guavas and sapotes are among the best in the markets. In the Los Angeles area, Rancho Santa Cecelia sells at farmers markets in Alhambra, Burbank, Echo Park, Encino, Thousand Oaks, Torrance (Tuesday) and Venice.
Plenty of other growers, such as Michael Cirone (See Canyon), Fair Hills Farm and Windrose Farm, have good Galas. The variety is not suited to prolonged storage, so the season ends, or should end, by October.
Just around the corner from Marquez's Gala planting is a younger but even more surprising orchard at Old Creek Ranch Winery, where the first small crop of Howard Miracle plums, a semi-legendary variety born in Montebello, will be harvested next week.
Originally the property was a cattle ranch, says owner John Whitman, a retired television executive. A 20-acre vineyard was planted in the 1980s, but the vines succumbed to Pierce's disease, which is endemic in the Southland. Whitman cast about for a new crop. Seven years ago he planted 1,100 cherry trees on 7 acres, including standard varieties like Bing and Rainier.
And then four years ago he planted 190 trees of Howard Miracle plum, famed for its unusual appearance and flavor, as well as for its myth of origin. According to a patent granted in 1946 to Frederick H. Howard (1874-1948), a prominent nurseryman in Montebello, this prodigy originated from a hybrid of greengage plum, arguably the most delicious stone fruit in the world, and Satsuma plum, the beloved red-fleshed variety brought from Japan in 1876. Such a cross would indeed represent a miracle, because Satsuma is an Asian plum and the true greengage is a European plum, a different species with a greater number of chromosomes, which makes hybridization impossible, or at least very difficult. Very likely Howard's "greengage" was a green Asian plum, often mistaken then and now for the real item.
With a bright yellow ground color overlaid with pink and red, Howard Miracle looks striking and unusual. Howard described the flavor of his namesake variety as being "unlike that of any known plum," combining pineapple, plum and nectarine; others have claimed it has hints of citrus. It is an odd duck by any account, not least because the appearance and flavor of the fruit can vary markedly, even from the same tree; the plums can be all yellow, all red, round, beaked, intensely flavored or insipid. The variety isn't firm enough for commercial shipping, but it has become a backyard favorite, particularly in Southern California, because of its modest chill requirement.
Whitman will sell his modest crop this year to the Farmer and the Cook Market & Café in Ojai, which will start selling the fresh fruit soon. If and when production picks up in future years, Whitman intends to sell, either directly or through a second certificate, at farmers markets.
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