It's not all organic, but integrity and quality are in abundance

It's not all organic, but integrity and quality are in abundance
(David Karp / For The Times)
The Santa Monica Saturday Organic farmers market was originally conceived in 1991 as an all-organic venue, but when this proved impractical, nonorganic vendors were admitted. Nevertheless, it does offer a high percentage of organic vendors, currently about 20 of 46, and more important, it's one of the best markets in the Southland, in good part because Mort Bernstein, the manager since soon after its founding, is a stickler for integrity and quality.

Laura Ramirez, who drolly calls her Redlands-based farm J.J.'s Lone Daughter Ranch, brings superb avocados, keeps customers informed about the seasonal progression of varieties, and expertly picks out fruits to the desired ripeness.

Until recently, she was recommending Bacon, but some fruits of this early ripening variety are showing signs of overmaturity, so her current top choice is Fuerte, just coming into its prime. This green-skinned, pear-shaped fruit was California's leading avocado from the industry's beginnings in the 1910s to 1972, when it was surpassed by the thicker-skinned, more durable Hass.

Fuerte has fallen out of commercial production to the point that it's now hard to find except at California farmers markets, but most growers still prefer it to Hass for its rich, buttery flavor.

Pyong Yun Song of Pudwill Berry Farm, from Nipomo, has abundant supplies of blackberries, which are pretty good - mild, sweet and fruity - but most remarkable in that they are available at all in midwinter. Until a few years ago, it was almost impossible to produce winter blackberries commercially in California, even under protective hoop houses, but the advent of new varieties, called "primocane," is revolutionizing the blackberry industry, just as happened previously with raspberries.

"Primocane" may sound like something that a dentist would rub on your gums to numb you before a shot, but it actually refers to a newly developed type of blackberry, bred by John R. Clark of the University of Arkansas, that fruits on current-season canes; all previous commercial varieties were floricane-fruiting, which meant that the canes had to be overwintered for fruiting the next year.

With primocane varieties, to a far greater extent than before, growers can control harvest dates by manipulating planting schedules, pruning and irrigation. From the De Luz area of Fallbrook, Leticia Garcia of Garcia Organic Farm brings Cara Cara pink-fleshed navel oranges, which have progressed in the last two decades from novelty to supermarket staple.

Although sometimes confused for a blood variety, Cara Cara is different in origin, chemistry and taste: It's pigmented with lycopene, a reddish-pink carotenoid that colors pink grapefruits, tomatoes, watermelons, and guavas. (Like the anthocyanins that color blood oranges, lycopene is a potent antioxidant and may help to prevent cancer.) Cara Cara also contains relatively high amounts of beta-carotene, compared with standard navel oranges.

Externally it resembles a regular navel with a light pink blush; on the inside, it's a gorgeous deep salmon. The color and flavor are best when the harvest starts, in November and December in the San Joaquin Valley, and in January in Southern California; by the end of the season, in April or May, acidity drops and the color fades slightly. The pulp is relatively low in acidity to begin with, which gives it a milder flavor than regular navels.

This variety originated as a mutation of a Washington navel orange tree at the Hacienda Cara Cara, in Venezuela, in 1976. In the United States, it was first planted in Florida in the early 1990s and marketed as a "red navel," but it proved pale, watery and insipid, and it has faded from commercial cultivation there. The variety is richer in color and flavor in California, where more than 3,000 acres have been planted.

Talking of Washington navels, Hassan and Deborah Ghamlouch, who call their farm The Grove, have seven acres of this classic orange in the Arlington Heights district of Riverside, famous as a navel-growing area. They're about five miles from the site of the home of Luther and Eliza Tibbets, who received the first navel orange trees in California, sent from Washington, D.C., in the 1870s, where they had come from Brazil.

Navels are now available all year, primarily from California from late fall to late spring, and from Australia, Chile and South Africa the rest of the year. In California, there are many early and late varieties that have arisen by mutation over the years, and most are good at their peak; but nothing beats the original Washington navel, and a good case can be made that Riverside and Redlands produce the sweetest, most flavorful specimens. Depending on where and how it's grown, this variety can peak in quality any time from late December to March, but February is prime time for the Ghamlouchs' untreated, organically grown navels, which they also sell at the Riverside (Saturday), Pacific Palisades and Studio City farmers markets.

At last Saturday's Santa Monica market several customers commented that more and more of the vendors are using fans to comply with the local Mediterranean fruit fly quarantine, rather than the older system of nets and tubing.

Z Zeller, a shopper, prefers the fans. "It's more attractive and easier to reach the produce," she said. "Half the time the nets are open and the flies can get in, so the fans seem to be a much better system."

Farmers at other markets in the quarantine area would like to switch to fans, but this method can be used only as part of a pilot project at the Wednesday and Saturday Santa Monica Third Street markets, says Anthony Jackson of the Department of Agriculture. USDA and California Department of Food and Agriculture agents have found no new wild Medflies in the Santa Monica quarantine zone and continue to release sterile flies, the main method of combating the outbreak. If no further discoveries are made, and depending on temperatures over time, the Santa Monica Medfly quarantine may end on Aug. 27, said Larry Hawkins, a spokesman for the USDA in Sacramento.

At that time, the fan pilot study will end and the California state entomologist, Kevin Hoffman, will determine whether fans can be more widely used in future quarantines.

Santa Monica Saturday Organic farmers market, Arizona Avenue between 2nd and 4th streets, Saturdays 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.