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At the Santa Monica Pico farmers market: kiwis, dates, Fuyu persimmons

The Santa Monica Pico farmers market on Saturdays has a lower profile than the big Wednesday venue on Arizona, but it's an excellent market in its own right. It's in an attractive location, the recently renovated Virginia Park, and it's substantial in size, with 35 produce vendors, and seven prepared food stalls. Most important, Ted Galvan, who has managed the market since its establishment in 1992, vets the farmers to make sure they actually grow what they sell. Many managers don't bother or don't have the time to conduct farm inspections, but Galvan -- whose family used to own a local chain of Mexican restaurants named Hacienda Galvan -- has visited virtually all of his growers.

Eighty-seven-year-old Harry Nicholas, resplendent in a purple fedora with a faux leopard band, has started to bring Hayward kiwifruit, the standard green-fleshed variety, from his 5-acre planting in Orange Cove, which he picked two weeks ago. He placed the fruits in storage, then briefly treated them with ethylene gas and left them in a warm room for a day to ripen, he said, so they're ready to eat straight out of the tray. Kiwis store well and Nicholas will have them into April, but they're at their sprightliest right now. Nicholas, who also sells at the Santa Monica Wednesday and Beverly Hills markets, displays regular oval-shaped fruits, while some other vendors are selling misshapen packinghouse culls, which don't taste any different, but are not supposed to be sold under state farmers market regulations.

By now the harvest of most date varieties is complete, but the picking of Deglet Noor runs later than for other kinds. Commercial growers let the fruits dry fully on the palm and later moisten them for sale, but Blanca Bautista of Bautista Family Organic Date Ranch has a rare delicacy, "natural" Deglet Noors -- picked at just the right texture for immediate consumption, with a translucence that explains the variety's name in Arabic, "Date of Light."

The variety originated in Algerian and Tunisian oases in the 17th century and was the first to be grown commercially in California, partly because when fully dry it packs and handles better than softer varieties. Currently, it accounts for about 70% of the state's production, and date aficionados sometimes neglect the Deglet as if it were some commercial mediocrity, but at its best it has a distinctive delicate flavor that's hard to describe. Part of the reason for this is that it contains a higher proportion of sucrose than other varieties such as Medjool, Zahidi, Halawy and Khadrawy, which have more of the invert sugars, glucose and fructose.

Fuyu persimmons are pretty much all at peak quality and very sweet by now, but some are better than others, depending on the growing area, the exact strain grown and horticultural practices. For many years I thought that Raul and Nora Rios, who grew on a steep hillside in Fallbrook, had some of the best Fuyus around, not only very sweet but deep orange in color, intense in flavor and firm but moist in texture. Raul died three years ago, alas, and earlier this year Nora sold the farm and retired to Riverside to live near her daughter. (Fruit cultivation is in her blood, and she has already planted some trees in her yard.) The couple who bought her property, Ron and Cathy Sahu, retained the same vendors, who also sell at the Alhambra and both Torrance markets, and the Fuyus are as scrumptious as ever.

Santa Monica Pico farmers market, Virginia Park, Pico Boulevard at 22nd Street (entrance to parking at 23rd Street), Saturdays 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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