Fennel, the most fragrant of vegetables, is now at its peak of abundance and quality. Of the half-dozen stands at the Hollywood farmers market that sell it, Finley Organic Farms, which grows the Zefa Fino variety in Santa Ynez, has the sweetest and most tender and aromatic bulbs, ideal for eating raw in salads. Finley also sells at the Culver City, Beverly Hills and Saturday Santa Monica markets. But it's hard to go wrong: The Xiong farm of Clovis has pristine specimens, and Underwood Family Farms of Somis has large, plump bulbs.
Fennel's sweet, licorice-like flavor derives from a phenolic chemical called anethole that is sweeter than sugar, while its citrusy notes come from limonene. The smaller bulbs are the most fragrant and succulent; large bulbs eventually grow woody but are well suited to grilling and braising.
Many customers still believe the old canard that fennel comes in male and female forms (although opinions differ as to whether the males are flatter, and the females plumper, or vice versa). Any such sexual distinctions are patently bogus, since fennel plants produce hermaphrodite flowers, with both male and female parts, but it is true that the flatter, more elongated bulbs are stringier and less succulent compared with the rounder, plumper ones.
Mandarins at their best are arguably the finest of all citrus for eating fresh because of their ease of peeling, balance of sweetness and acidity, and delightful aroma. In the last decade, as farmers recognized this and gained access to new varieties, they more than quadrupled mandarin plantings in California, to some 35,000 to 40,000 acres, and the fruit has vaulted into the big leagues at supermarkets and farmers markets. The leading variety, accounting for more than 10,000 acres, is the awkwardly named W. Murcott Afourer, which originated in Afourer, Morocco, supposedly as a seedling of the Murcott variety. Farmers love it because the tree is easy to grow and produces large, steady crops of attractive fruits that store and ship well, peel easily and are potentially seedless. The flavor generally is good to very good but not up to the finest varieties, such as Dancy, Daisy or Algerian clementine.
At least that's what I (like most citrus observers) thought until recently, when I tasted the Afourers grown by Tony Thacher of Friend's Ranches in Ojai. They are tiny and thus not easily peeled, but very juicy, and fantastically aromatic. Ojai is famous for its Pixie mandarins, but who knew that it also could grow California's leading mandarin to perfection?
"Mandarins are far more microclimate-sensitive than oranges," explains Thacher, who sells at the Ojai, Santa Monica Wednesday and Hollywood markets. Most of his larger Afourers go to wholesalers, who pay a premium for them even though some of them have seeds.
Afourer is seedless when grown in isolated blocks, but when it is planted next to seedy citrus like Valencia oranges or Minneola tangelos, bees pollinate the Afourer flowers and cause the resulting fruits to develop seeds. After several rounds of legal wrangles with beekeepers, trying to keep them from stationing hives near their seedless mandarin orchards, many large mandarin growers now cover their groves of Afourer during bloom, in April, with bee-proof netting, to keep their fruits seedless.
Such extraordinary measures may not be needed in the long term, because farmers have rushed to plant a new variety named Tango, derived from irradiated budwood of Afourer, that closely resembles Afourer but remains virtually seedless when pollinated. It has been planted on an estimated 6,000 acres, most of which have not yet started to bear, said Timothy Williams of UC Riverside, the fruit's co-breeder.
Meanwhile, the take-home lesson for farmers market shoppers is to sample Afourer mandarins before buying, because both their seed content and flavor can vary considerably.
With the recent rains, a bumper crop of local chanterelles abounds at the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers market. Three vendors from Lompoc -- Tutti Frutti Farms, Louis Mello and Mario Trevino -- have been selling hundreds of pounds a week of the fungi, at prices ranging from $10 to $18 a pound.
"This has been an exceptional season because of the rain," Mello says. "We haven't had such a bountiful harvest in a long time."
Chanterelles are true wild mushrooms, prized for their lovely orange-gold color, graceful shapes and delicate but rich taste and aroma, which can run from apricot to nutty to peppery. They go well in sauces, but a simple preparation, like sauteing in butter, shows them off best.
Until recently, this impressive and beautiful local mushroom was considered just a variant form of Cantharellus cibarius, the common golden chanterelle found in Europe and many areas of the United States, but an article by David Arora and Susie M. Dunham published in Economic Botany in 2008 reclassified it as its own new species, the California oak chanterelle, C. californicus. It is the largest chanterelle in the world -- some specimens weigh up to 2 pounds -- and grows almost exclusively in association with its mycorrhizal hosts, the coast live oak and a few other oak species; it occurs from northern Baja California to Mendocino County but is most abundant in the coastal hills of the Lompoc-San Luis Obispo region.
Despite differences in size, form and habitat, the flavor of the California oak chanterelle is "comparable in every respect" to that of the other chanterelle species, says Mohamad Ismail, a member of the Los Angeles Mycological Society who has a master's degree in mycology and runs Pacific Exotic Mushrooms, a business that sells to restaurants. However, he says, the larger California chanterelles tend to be more moist, and some chefs prefer the smaller species, because they are easier to present whole on the plate and don't have to be diced.
For best quality, shoppers should look for firmer, rounder, button-shaped chanterelles, which tend to be younger, drier and less slimy than big cup-shaped specimens, says Chris Caldwell of Tutti Frutti Farms, who also sells at the Hollywood, Ojai and Santa Barbara markets. A lot of work goes into cleaning the chanterelles, which are then cured for a few days, so that they lose excess moisture and don't express liquid in the pan when cooked, he adds.