Food

Market Watch: Exotic melons a sweet success in high desert

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Thirteen years ago, when Ruben Mkrtchyan told his wife and four children that they were going to move from Glendale to a high desert valley in the middle of nowhere to grow the world's tastiest melons, they thought he had lost his mind.

"My mom and I looked at each other and said, 'What is he talking about?' " recalls his daughter Tatevik. "When we went up there, the land was completely empty, just Joshua trees and scrub."

But Mkrtchyan had a vision of fields and orchards blooming in the wilderness, one that he has realized to a remarkable extent. He now grows 15 acres of legendary melon varieties from Uzbekistan and Iran, and he has just started showing up at farmers markets in Los Angeles.

Mkrtchyan, born on a collective farm in the Ararat Valley, the fruit bowl of Armenia, earned the equivalent of a master's in mathematics just before the Soviet Union fell apart. In 1989, he immigrated to California, and since he didn't speak any English, he took a job in construction to support his young family. Eighteen months later, he went into business for himself as a general contractor, and in time he prospered.

Mkrtchyan started taking his family camping and particularly loved Lake Isabella, at the southern end of the Sierra Nevada. He looked to buy a ranch in the area, and when a real estate agent showed him a property in a remote valley seven miles east of the tiny community of Onyx, halfway between Lake Isabella and Ridgecrest, he was smitten by the stark beauty of the arid land, rimmed by mountains.

"I thought, this is unbelievable, because more than the mountains I love only God," he said last Sunday, in the house that he built on the property, which is now covered with melon fields and fruit trees.

The site is at the bottom of the valley, so it has a good well and is so isolated from other farms that there is little pressure from pests and diseases. That's a crucial consideration for growing Central Asian melons, which are intensely sweet and flavorful but much more susceptible than standard American varieties to fungal diseases such as powdery mildew.

Uzbekistan is to melons as France is to wine, a center of excellence and diversity. The most extraordinary of Mkrtchyan's melons is the variety that he calls Mirza, a Farsi and Russian name meaning "prince" or "high nobleman." The fruits are huge and elongated — 18 inches to 2 feet long, weighing 10 to 25 pounds — with beige netting and golden stripes over a cream background. The flesh is creamy white, slightly granular, much softer than that of conventional melons, and intensely sweet and flavorful.

"It's like drinking from the river of the garden of paradise," said Amanda Broder-Hahn, pastry chef at Food restaurant, after tasting a sample.

Obinovot (the name means "father of sugar," says Mkrtchyan) tastes similar, if slightly less rich, but may be the world's most spectacularly beautiful melon, its rind an abstract artwork of canary yellow, orange, green and brown, accented by cracks and scratches that give it the allure of antique Chinese ceramics. Mkrtchyan also grows Sharlyn (one of the few Central Asian types that has been available here), which has tender, orange flesh, and Mashhad, a large, elongated Persian variety.

Mkrtchyan's melons ripen from the end of July to the first frost, typically in late October or early November. He and his wife, Sonya, started to sell two weeks ago at the new Hollywood & Highland farmers market, which runs 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays, off Orange Drive. This weekend they will start at the Calabasas and Brentwood farmers markets, and they have also been selling some of their melons to the Jons Marketplace chain.

Mkrtchyan has used his property as his own experiment station to try cultivating many crops, not all of which have succeeded. Walking through the orchards, he pointed to a pile of chainsawed, blackened cherry trees and to a grove of pears, susceptible to fire blight, that would be taken out next. Like many high desert growers (he's at an elevation of 3,200 feet), he lost most of his stone fruit this year to a late freeze. But his apricot trees — some of them grown from seeds from Armenia, the supposed homeland of the species, Prunus armeniaca — are flourishing, along with his mulberries. And he's excited about his Armenian quince, which he says bears fruit that is sweet and edible fresh like an apple. He also produces pristine, delicious honey from his beehives.

Two years ago, Tatevik, who initially looked askance at her father's proposed move to Onyx, gave up the stress of working as a real estate agent to form a partnership with a beekeeper in Camarillo. She named the venture Isabell's Honey Farm after her daughter and sells orange blossom, buckwheat and sage honeys at seven farmers markets.

A year ago, Mkrtchyan established the Isabell Green Foundation to provide food and aid to orphans and impoverished families, both in the Sub Caucasus and in the United States. His farm donates blemished but healthful produce. Last Sunday, half a dozen scientists on the organization's board gathered at the farm to discuss their plans for projects like soil decontamination and a new technology for drying fruits.

He's eager to make use of this technology to dry his melons, some of which are unsalable because they crack. Judging by a rich-flavored, musky slice of his dried Uzbek melon, this product, which is a staple in Central Asia, could be a runaway hit at local ethnic and farmers markets.

Mkrtchyan is already making plans to expand melon cultivation to 50 or even 100 acres, both near his farm and in cooperation with a grower in the Coachella Valley. One can only hope that such expansion will not dilute the delight that his farm, improbably located in the middle of nowhere, has given both him and his customers.

food@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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