At the farmers market

John Hurley sells Santa Rosa plums and ultra-delicious Snow Queen white nectarines at the Beverly Hills farmers market. (David Karp / July 4, 2010)

For two months it seemed like summer would never come for our nectarines and plums, which were delayed and somewhat less flavorful than usual. This week, the big heat finally arrived in the San Joaquin Valley, bringing an abundance of choice varieties to peak ripeness all at once. For the next two months, that area will pump out great varieties every week, if you know what to look for.

None is greater, or more exasperating, than the Snow Queen white nectarine. Choose a specimen with a full, rounded shape, a creamy ground color, and leathery, speckled skin on part of its surface. Cut it open to reveal the dense, buttery flesh, which is pleasingly firm on first bite but melts in the mouth, providing a perfect balance of sweetness and acidity, and intense, complex, lingering aromatics and flavor. All hail the queen!

Alas, the Snow Queen is not always so splendid. Fruits that mature in the shade, which typically have smooth red skin, can lack the sugar to overcome the variety's high acidity. When it gets too hot – and it was 107 degrees in Fresno on Wednesday – the fruit develops insanely high sugar, but this can quickly ferment, so it passes from unripe to funky in two days.

This week should represent the peak for Snow Queen, available from Art Lange and Ron Cornelsen of Honey Crisp from Reedley at Beverly Hills and Santa Monica (Wednesday); John Hurley (Summer Harvest) of Dinuba at Beverly Hills and Santa Monica (Saturday, Downtown and Pico); and Truman Kennedy (who calls the Snow Queen or a similar variety "Stanwick") at Santa Monica (Saturday Downtown and Wednesday).

Art Lange's stand also has the Cashmere yellow nectarine, an old-fashioned high-acid variety with deep golden skin and flesh and very rich flavor. A similar variety, Mayfair, is the specialty of Jack and Terry Balderama of Orosi, who sell at the Santa Monica (Saturday Pico, Wednesday), Echo Park and Crenshaw markets.

Suddenly Santa Rosa plums are everywhere, with their unmistakable wild aroma and astringent skins, derived from a touch of native America plum in the variety's ancestry. For anyone older than 30, their unique sweet-tart flavor is the very essence of plum, but the key is getting them at just the right stage of ripeness: too light red, and they're overly sour; too dark and they're a bruise-prone bag of juice.

A decade ago Pluots, plumlike hybrids of plum and apricot, came in relatively few varieties, with a gap between the early and late ones. Now there are dozens that ripen continuously from May to October, but Flavor Supreme, with speckled green and red skin and red flesh, is still one of the best, and at its peak now. Ken Lee of Reedley, who sells at Torrance (Saturday), Hollywood, and South Pasadena, offers both Santa Rosas and Flavor Supremes.

It's been a banner season for local Blenheim apricots, which thrive on moderate temperatures that allow it to hang on the tree and develop full sweetness and flavor. The Blenheim king, Michael Cirone of San Luis Obispo, will make his long-awaited debut at Santa Monica next Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Nicholas Family Farms of Orange Cove, which sells at the Torrance (Saturday) and La Cañada Flintridge markets, has Cotton Candy Apriums, a home garden variety with delicate, supersweet yellowish-white flesh and a honeydew flavor.

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