Market Watch: Corona del Mar farmers market is small but mighty

The 14-year-old Corona del Mar farmers market is modest in size, with 24 vendors, including 10 produce and five flower or nursery stands. That's down a bit from a decade ago, and vendors say that sales are off because of the tough economy, but the market still has enough good produce to make it a worthwhile stop for local residents.

Smith Farms, based in nearby Trabuco Canyon, has the most attractive display of vegetables, including slender asparagus, sugar snap peas, huge globe artichokes, green cabbage and old-fashioned iceberg lettuce.

Valdivia Farms of Carlsbad offers some of the first favas of the season, still young and tender enough to eat without peeling off the skin around each bean, although it also sells rather dry, supermarket-style peeled carrots and "heirloom" cherry tomatoes in a bar-coded clamshell with mediocre flavor.

Polito Family Farms is the top choice here (or anywhere) for citrus. There's something special about the farm's climate, in Pauma Valley and Valley Center, that imparts to certain citrus varieties, such as Moro blood oranges and Oroblanco pummelo hybrids, an ideal balance of sweetness and acidity, combined with intensity of flavor. Enjoy them soon, however, because, probably as a result of hot weather last summer, most citrus from Southern California is about three weeks ahead of normal maturity, and even many late-season varieties will soon be past their prime, leading to low acidity and blandness.

Low acidity is not a defect in the fruit that Eli's Farm of De Luz is marketing, rather inventively, as "strawberry oranges." These are naturally acidless sweet oranges that have an odd mild flavor reminiscent of orange Creamsicle. Other farms also give this variety made-up names such as "mango orange," perhaps because its proper name, Vaniglia Sanguigno ("Vanilla Blood" in Italian), is a bit of a mouthful. It's not really a blood orange, anyway, since instead of being pigmented red with anthocyanins, like Moros and Taroccos, it derives its pink from lycopene, which colors pink grapefruit and tomatoes.

Eli's — owned by Eli Hofshi, son of Reuben Hofshi, a great Israeli American avocado farmer and savant — also has an unusual avocado variety, Ettinger, a seedling of Fuerte that originated in Israel and has a remarkable flavor of pine nuts.

For real Orange County oranges, Neff Ranch sells bags of navels, grown on 14 acres of citrus left over after the development of a ranch in Yorba Linda. (As recently as 1980, the county grew 5,575 acres of its namesake fruit; now it's down to 77.) The stand also offers Valencia orange juice made from a blend of last year's crop, which is super-sweet, and this year's crop, which is still a bit tart by itself. The new-crop Valencia oranges will be available in three or four weeks, says Don Neff, who sends an employee to Corona del Mar but shows up himself at the nearby Irvine farmers market.

There he is selling Hass avocados harvested from groves covering steep hillsides in the Emerson housing association in Tustin. The trees, planted seven years ago as an alternative to conventional landscaping, didn't bear fruit until this year because they were inadequately irrigated, and some were cut down when homeowners complained that the foliage was blocking their views. But the remaining 850 trees now are producing a bumper crop. Inland Orange County is a perfect growing area for avocados, and Hass, which has been available locally for several months, is just now coming into its peak season, for quality and quantity.

Corona del Mar farmers market, Pacific Coast Highway at Marguerite Avenue, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays.

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