The first month of the summer fruit season is like a roller coaster: a frustratingly slow buildup, with many mediocre early varieties, gives way suddenly to a whoosh of fantastic flavors. The fruit calendar has been about a week later than usual because of cool spring weather, but finally markets are abounding, if one knows where to look, with classic Bing cherries, flavorful Robada apricots, aromatic Flavorella plumcots and complex Boysenberries. So much fruit, so little stomach!
Good or very good cherries actually have been available for several weeks. The Brooks variety, whose harvest in the southern San Joaquin Valley is now winding up, can be superbly rich when fully ripe – those from John Hurley of Dinuba, at the Santa Monica (Saturday) and Beverly Hills markets, have been especially fine this year.
But nothing compares to a plump, meaty Bing, with inky juice and intense flavor. The problem is, most areas near
are too hot for Bings to produce well. The great majority of the state's crop comes from the Stockton area, and even though cherries are a high-value crop, very few growers are willing to drive 700 miles round trip to sell here. One of the few actual farmers who does is J.P. Barbagelata, who sells at Torrance (Tuesday) and Santa Monica (Wednesday).
Untimely late rains spoiled about half his crop, but the fruits that remain are worth a special trip. It's also worth taking the time and paying a premium to "cherry pick" the fruits yourself, to avoid any that have cracked at the bottom, which may quickly develop mold, or occasional lighter colored, less flavorful specimens. The best of all have a matte black appearance and, in some cases, may have even started to raisin slightly, an indication of superbly sweet, rich, concentrated flavor.
Zuckerman's Farm, best known for its asparagus and potatoes, also sells Bings under a second certificate for a neighbor, Mark Lewis, at Studio City,
(Friday and Sunday), Encino and
. Customers who buy second certificate produce give up the chance to speak to the actual farmer or his employees, but many are willing to make that compromise, especially for something as special as Bings.
Many shoppers are justifiably skeptical about early apricots, after having been burned by mealy Poppycots and sour Castlebrites. Some give up and decide to wait for the Blenheims, which are still a few weeks off. But Robada, a variety with an intense red blush and meaty, deep-orange flesh introduced by the
in 1997, is starting to catch on among growers and is well worth a try. The name may sound like a Japanese techno-monster, but Robada at its best offers thick, juicy flesh and real apricot aroma and flavor.
A freeze in early April destroyed most of the Robada crop from the high desert, so the San Joaquin Valley harvest over the next week or two will be most of the supply this year. Arnett Farms of Fresno will have Robadas this weekend at Brentwood, Hollywood, Torrance and Mar Vista markets; Fitzgerald Kelly of Reedley sells them in Santa Monica on Wednesdays.
Arnett and Kelly also have Flavorella plumcots, 50/50 hybrids of plum and apricot, with bright canary yellow skin and flesh and an outrageously intense aroma of Santa Rosa plum. Like the Santa Rosa, Flavorella is tart next to the skin and pit, with a pleasing offset of mellow apricot sweetness in the flesh. Although lacking the subtlety and complexity of a true noble fruit, its sweet-tart punch ranks it above any apricot, plum or peach available this week.
Very few farmers grow Flavorella, however, because, as a first-generation hybrid, its fertility is impaired, its pollination tricky and its production, in many cases, meager. Ken Lee of Reedley, for one, gave up trying to grow it and bulldozed his trees.
"I just couldn't make it pay," he said. "It wouldn't set much of a crop. They'd be green on the trees one day, then a breeze would come along and they'd all be on the ground."
So aside from appreciating this fruit's distinctive taste, when you see Flavorella at the market, you'll know that it was from a farmer who was either smart enough to figure out how to grow it, lucky or stubborn.
As if Bings, Robadas and Flavorellas weren't enough, Boysenberries, with a unique flavor derived from their raspberry and blackberry ancestors, have started appearing at markets. Choose carefully, because the best fruits — dark, matte purplish black, with full, almost bursting drupelets — are exquisitely sweet-tart and flavorful, but firm, reddish berries are too sour to eat fresh.
From Redlands, Doug Powell has been bringing excellent Boysens to the Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Redlands markets; Robert Poole Jr., whose father has been growing the fruit since 1977, will sell at Santa Monica next Wednesday and at Hollywood the following Sunday. Murray Family Farms of Arvin offers Boysens, as well as Olallieberries (more similar to a traditional blackberry), at many markets, including
, Torrance, Hollywood and Santa Monica (Wednesday).