Around the United States, coarse, watery commercial varieties still predominate, but they have largely been displaced at Southern California farmers markets by wondrous Persian cucumbers. They're small, about 6 inches long and 3/4 inch in diameter; they have smooth, edible, thin skin, no peeling required; they're basically seedless, with a few tiny undeveloped seeds; and, most important, they're tender and crunchy, with a delicate, very pleasant, mildly sweet flavor.
Where did Persian cucumbers come from, and how did this revolution happen?
Three years ago, when I visited the mosaics at a Byzantine-era synagogue, Beit Alpha, in northern Israel, I had no idea that the story of the modern mini-cucumber began at a nearby kibbutz in 1939. According to a recent account, "autodidacts [who] left Europe to build socialist settlements in Israel" started breeding local cucumbers, which were small and tasty but very susceptible to disease. They hybridized them with cucumbers from India, Japan, China, Surinam and the United States to improve disease resistance, and with English and Dutch varieties so that they'd be seedless.
The original variety was named Beit Alpha, after its birthplace, and among horticulturists, the many improved varieties that followed have been called Beit Alpha types. But similar cucumbers have long been prized in the Mideast, and so they're often called "Lebanese cucumbers," "Persian cucumbers," etc. In Southern California, with its substantial population of Iranian immigrants, the Persian moniker prevails, but many recent varieties come from seed companies in Europe (mainly Holland), where they have been crossed with long, thin-skinned European greenhouse varieties and are called "mini-cucumbers."
Robert Beylik of Beylik Family Farms, a pioneer and still the standard of quality among local growers of Persian cucumbers, started out growing European greenhouse varieties, mostly for wholesale markets, in 1978. These have better flavor and texture than commercial slicing varieties, but they need to be wrapped in plastic to keep from drying out, and they're not as tasty as Persian cucumbers.
About 1991, Robert's son, Scott Beylik, started a trial of Persian types and found that customers at farmers markets greatly preferred them. He and his family now grow 1/3 acre of cucumbers in four greenhouses in Fillmore, in Ventura County. Their largest crop is greenhouse tomatoes, and they also farm peppers and avocados in the open air. They sell exclusively at farmers markets, at up to 19 locations, including in Santa Monica, Hollywood, Ventura, Studio City, Santa Clarita and South Pasadena. At $3.50 a pound, Beylik's cucumbers are not cheap, but many market professionals consider them the finest, despite increasing competition from other growers.
Beylik raises his cucumbers hydroponically, in a coconut fiber medium, making sure that the plants receive exactly the water and nutrition they require for maximum production and health. For some produce, field-grown specimens may be superior, but this is not so for cucumbers. Out in the open, the wind scars cucumber skins, which become thicker due to changing temperatures and humidity.
Beylik has grown several Beit Alpha varieties, such as Figaro and Cordito, searching for the best combination of flavor, production and disease resistance. Today he mostly raises a hybrid variety, Manar, introduced in 1999 by De Ruiter Seeds, now a subsidiary of Monsanto. Monsanto is, of course, controversial for its commercialization of genetically modified crops; its cucumbers are conventionally bred, but it is ironic that Southland foodies delight in cucumbers bred by their bugbear.
Smaller Persian cucumbers are crunchiest and most flavorful. Long sunny days can cause the fruit to grow an inch in diameter over a long weekend, so in summer it's a challenge for Beylik's foreman, Refugio "Cuco" Arambula, to harvest them before they grow too large, watery and pithy. In winter, by contrast, production slows down, and Beylik often doesn't have enough to supply its markets. (Loyal customers groan, but such gaps are a good indication that Beylik sells only what it grows instead of making up shortfalls from wholesale sources.)
Persian-type varieties still account for just a tiny portion of domestic cucumber production, because they are not well adapted to many American growing areas, and their thin skins markedly curtail shelf life. But there's considerable greenhouse production in Canada and Baja California, and the Mexican fruit is widely available at supermarkets in Southern California. At Whole Foods, for example, Persian types account for roughly a quarter of cucumber sales by value, and this proportion has gradually been increasing, says Jeff Biddle, the chain's local produce coordinator.
In late February, Scott Beylik visited Turkey and Israel on a California Agricultural Leadership tour to research water use and observed with pleasure that the local cucumbers were just like his, sweet and crunchy. While a cucumber revolution bred in the Mideast has swept Southern California farmers markets, he says, tasting these fruits "confirmed that I'm on the right track."