The Hollywood farmers market has a distinctively urban, almost carnival-like atmosphere, blending serious foodies, working-class shoppers, musicians, petition gatherers and a scattering of freaks. It's the second-largest market in Southern California, behind Santa Monica Wednesday, and features an abundance of excellent and unique farms, but also some that sell commercial-grade produce. The geographical organization is well-conceived, with the certified farmers on Ivar Avenue and a lively stretch of prepared foods and crafts on the cross street, Selma Avenue.
One of the best avocado varieties in December is Bacon, which has thin, smooth, glossy green skin speckled with yellow dots, a large seed and unusually pale yellow-green flesh. James Bacon selected it on his ranch in Buena Park in 1928 largely because it was relatively cold-hardy, but it also serves as a pollinizer for the dominant Hass variety and matures early, from November to January, at a time when prime avocados are scarce. True, it's not as rich in oil as Hass and Fuerte at their peaks, but it's got a good, sweet flavor, with an aftertaste that hints at pine nuts, and is far better than Zutano, the other major early green-skinned variety. Bacon rarely appears at supermarkets because its thin skin bruises easily and discolors, but it's common at Southern California farmers markets.
Laura Ramirez of JJ's Lone Daughter Ranch, from Redlands, brings very nice Bacons, and usually offers them in a range of ripeness, from "ready today" to "a week off." Personally I prefer to buy avocados on the firm side, or at least a few days off, and ripen them myself to avoid the mushy spots that result when soft fruit has been groped by rough customers; but when I have just returned from travel and need an avo right away, I'm glad that Ramirez makes them available. She also sells at the Santa Monica Saturday (Organic) and Wednesday markets.
By December, field-grown heirloom tomatoes often look and taste anemic, but cherry tomatoes, which need less heat to ripen, are more likely to be flavorful. The Sungolds grown by Harry's Berries are really good right now, sweet-tart and juicy, with a pleasantly herbaceous aroma. They're darn expensive, at $6 a pint, but at least they're of decent size; later on in the season they sometimes get so tiny that I get tired just thinking about someone having to pick them.
Shopping at the Mud Creek Ranch stand is like visiting an exotic fruit orchard; you never know what kind of oddball stuff co-owner Robin Smith will bring from her farm in Santa Paula. This week she has California Pride mangoes, which have green and red skin and deep orange flesh. Huh? California mangoes in December? Yes, that's the season in coastal districts like Ventura County, several months later than in the desert, where the state's only commercial mangoes are grown. And the quality, you ask? Well, some of them can be pretty sweet and juicy, but others are runty and never seem to ripen; overall, let's just say that they're the best local mangoes at this time.
Smith is also bringing a few date-plums, which are actually rootstock persimmons that grew out when the scion (top part of the grafted tree) died. They're really tiny, about the size of a blueberry, and quite astringent when unripe; when fully ripe they turn dark brown to black, and do have a rather datelike flavor. Their species, Diospyros lotus, is native to southeastern Europe and southwest Asia, and some scholars maintain that this was the food craved by the lotus-eaters in "The Odyssey." I wouldn't call them one of the world's great taste treats, but they are a curiosity worth trying. Some buyers are using them as garnishes, Smith says.
Blueberries are about as far out of season as they get in most of the northern hemisphere, but coastal farms like Forbidden Fruit Orchards in Lompoc can produce a very valuable and tasty secondary crop in late fall and winter. In this cooler weather, the berries take longer to ripen and as a result are firmer and more concentrated in flavor than fruits from the state's main spring harvest in the Central Valley. In any given container, many berries are tart, but there are always a few that are just sublime. Which somehow seems fitting for this market.