Late April and early May is a challenging, in-between time for fruit lovers. The citrus harvest is winding down, and prime stone fruit is still several weeks off. At no season is it more important for mindful shoppers to discern mediocre from worthwhile offerings and perhaps even venture afield from farmers markets to obtain certain specialty items.
No crop is more eagerly awaited than cherries, which just started showing up last week at a few farmers markets. The very first pickings and the earliest varieties are not generally the best, and the cool weather in the San Joaquin Valley until recently has delayed the harvest by a week or so. The Royal Kay cherries that Steve Murray of Murray Family Farms brought to the Santa Monica farmers market on Wednesday were soft and light-colored, and so-so in flavor, he admitted.
But Thursday, Murray will start picking Brooks, the standard of quality for early-season cherries, and he should have them at the Torrance, Hollywood, and Santa Clarita farmers markets this weekend. Friday he'll begin harvesting Sequoias, from a new patented series of varieties that deliver very good flavor and dependable production at his farm in Arvin, in an early-ripening district in the southern San Joaquin Valley. As always, look for fruits that are large, firm and dark for their variety, with a minimum of malformed specimens, and try to taste a typical fruit before buying.
Mulberries, the "it" fruit at farmers markets, are also starting to appear and tempt. To avoid disappointment, it's crucial to remember that there are several very different kinds. White mulberries, from the species Morus alba, have short, small fruits that can be creamy white, black or even lavender; they typically are sweet but insipid and lack complexity. A few varieties, like Oscar and Riviera, have a better balance of sweetness and acidity, and are well worth growing in home gardens. Colored varieties should be dark for their kind; white varieties should be mostly white, with little green. Taste before you buy, because fresh white mulberries are not cheap, and inferior specimens are suited chiefly for drying or feeding to livestock.
Spectacularly elongated Pakistan mulberries, which can range up to 4 inches in length, mature sporadically about the same time, in May and June. When fully ripe, they have a good balance of sweetness and acidity, and rich, fruity, perfumed flavor; the key is to buy only baskets in which most of the fruits are dark purplish black, because light red fruits are tart or tasteless. (Persian mulberries, inky and intensely flavored, don't ripen until late June and July.)
In theory, April and May should be the loquat's time to shine. Related to apples and pears but looking like an offbeat apricot, it's the first soft fruit of the season, with a flavor and texture blending cherries and cantaloupes. It flourishes in Southern California, growing from seed like a weed, and that's part of the problem for would-be commercial growers, since local buyers won't pay much for the fruit of so ubiquitous a tree.
Backyard seedling fruits can be delicious, but not always, and they tend to be small and seedy, which makes them a chore to peel and fillet. In addition, the fruits are highly perishable and typically taste best when slightly bruised. Their acidity drops quickly after harvest, so they pass from tart to well-balanced and then to bland. No wonder it's hard to find superior varieties for sale, even at farmers markets. But for those who prize local, seasonal produce, loquats are the fruit of the moment, along with strawberries.
Louis Diaz of Rancho Mexico Lindo, in Valley Center, sells two excellent varieties at the Beverly Hills farmers market: One is yellow-fleshed, teardrop-shaped and relatively large; the other is round, smaller and white-fleshed, and exquisitely sweet if properly ripe.
Even though I buy most of my fruit at farmers markets, there are some kinds that are so special that I search them out at produce stores and supermarkets. One is the legendary Temecula Sweet mandarin, which is grown by Norm Jones, a retired airline pilot, on a gorgeous farm overlooking the wild Santa Margarita River and a nature sanctuary, between Temecula and De Luz. Naturally puffy when ripe, the variety, which supposedly originated in a greenhouse in Montana in the 1970s, looks dried-out and over-mature, as many citrus fruits are at this time; but inside it's sweet and juicy, with a rich flavor that has earned it a cult following.
"Customers start asking about it in February," says Barry Fisher of Grow, a store in Manhattan Beach that offers one of the finest selections of produce in the Southland. When he first saw the fruit four years ago, it looked so ugly he wondered if it was legal to sell, he says. Now Temecula Sweet, which he displays as Temecula tangerine, is the No. 1 fruit in his store at this time of year. The variety is also available at Mother's Markets in Orange County, Vicente Foods in Brentwood and Marukai in Gardena and West Covina.