Orange County offers both opportunity and pitfalls for farmers market shoppers.
The area's demand for fresh local produce far exceeds the supply, particularly for crops such as stone fruit and apples, and it's difficult for upstate growers to make it through the traffic to O.C. venues.
One of the best in the area is the recently revived Newport Beach market. Manager Mark Anderson has made a point of carefully screening his produce vendors to exclude cheaters who might sell produce bought from wholesalers or other farms. He does so by visiting farms and consulting with other integrity-oriented managers, many of them from the Los Angeles area, where he lives, and where he started his first market, in Playa Vista.
As a result, his market roster reads a bit like " Santa Monica South," with several vendors, such as McGrath, Maggie's Farm, Tenerelli, Suncoast and Pudwill, which appear at Santa Monica's celebrated Wednesday market.
The Newport Beach market came back into being when the owner of the Lido Marina Village development was looking to revitalize the district's shopping street, Via Oporto. A glimpse of the boats and water adds color to the market venue, a European-style walking street. The relatively narrow passageway also means, however, that vendors must offload their produce and park elsewhere, not a favorite practice among growers and their employees. There are several holes in the offerings — no potatoes or eggs — which Anderson is attempting to fill, but the market's eight vendors cover most of the basics of fruit, vegetables and flowers.
One of the leading attractions is Sahu Subtropicals, which draws from two farms in Fallbrook and Rainbow and currently features an abundance of Fuyu-type persimmons, the tomato-shaped fruit eaten firm like an apple. (As with most California growers, they actually offer the Jiro variety, which is squarer in shape than the original Fuyu, with lightly incised perpendicular lines at the bottom.)
The trick with Fuyu-type persimmons is to find specimens that are as dark as possible, so that they'll be fully ripe and sweet without being so ripe that they're starting to go soft. Once they lose their crunch they can still be eaten and cooked, but most people find them less appealing. The best fruits have a deep orange color with a barely noticeable netting of darker lines that gives them almost a lacquered appearance. Late November and early December, before advancing maturity and rainstorms take their toll, is prime season for persimmons. Sahu, which also sells at the Alhambra, Santa Monica Virginia Park and both Torrance markets, does an especially good job with this fruit.
Arnett Farms of Fresno has satsuma mandarins, which, like persimmons, start showing up at markets in October but don't get good and sweet until November. Easy to peel and seedless, with tender, juicy pulp, satsumas are the most attractive citrus for eating fresh this month. Look for relatively dark fruits, although satsumas are naturally somewhat lighter in color than later varieties such as clementines and W. Murcott Afourer, the leading commercial mandarins in California. In terms of sweetness and aroma, other varieties at their best can be better than the satsuma. But right now, in its season, nothing beats a good satsuma. Quality varies considerably by year, and this is a good one — an off season for quantity for many growers, with fewer but larger and tastier fruits.
From the farmer's standpoint, satsumas are early, when few other mandarins are available; the trees are cold-hardy compared with other citrus; and although the fruits themselves are small and thin-skinned, and thus susceptible to freezes, most of the San Joaquin Valley crop is harvested by mid-December, when the greatest danger of freezes starts. The Southern California crop hangs on the tree much longer, until early spring, but its prime eating quality runs now through January.
Newport Beach farmers market, 3400 block of Via Oporto, Sundays 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Lompoc-grown green tea
One of the most exotic and enticing offerings at farmers markets this year is the green tea grown by Sandra Newman in Lompoc, which she is now selling at her Forbidden Fruit Orchards stand at the Wednesday Santa Monica market.
It all started with Francis Zee, a U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist in Hawaii who helped inspire a small-scale tea industry there over the last decade, aimed at tourists, connoisseurs and high-end markets, as for Kona coffee. Currently, there are about 10 harvestable acres in the state, and another 10 in the ground, said Eva Lee, a tea grower in Volcano, Hawaii.
Zee imparted his enthusiasm to Mark Gaskell, a farm advisor on California's Central Coast, who made plants, mostly seedlings derived from Turkish stock, available to Newman. The Lompoc farmer specializes in organic blueberries but also grows other oddball specialty crops like currants and baby kiwis.
When visited last year, her planting of 250 bushes, then 3 years old, was less than waist high, and was growing so slowly that she doubted that tea cultivation in her area would ever be economically viable. That's not entirely surprising, since tea does best in areas with warm climate, abundant rainfall, acidic soil and low labor costs, rather different from Newman's location on the Central Coast, and indeed from most or all of California. (Nevertheless, Imperial Tea Court, which serves and sells tea at two locations in San Francisco and Berkeley, has announced that it is starting a California tea farm in the greater Bay area.)
Newman grows the rest of her crops organically, but in order to get her tea bushes to grow more rapidly, she decided to farm them conventionally, applying fertilizer mixed with sulfuric acid to lower the pH of the soil. The tea bushes responded beautifully, she said, allowing her to harvest and dry small quantities of green tea, which she is selling in tea bags, four to a package, for $10.
Newman is still trying to figure out which techniques for drying will be most practical and result in a high-quality product. She has just a few dozen packets available currently but hopes to be able to harvest more in the spring, when the bushes flush vigorously. Tea bushes may never blanket her local hills like wine grapevines, but she does see promise selling to customers who want to know the farmer who produces their tea.