Between Ventura and Ojai on meandering California 150 sits a rejuvenated 100-year-old barn. Two years ago, the Allen family--husband Asa, wife Annabella and matriarch Clara--took over the small farm on which this landmark sits.
Here, fruit fanciers can find a year-round assortment of fresh offerings.
The farm's name--4S Organic Berries--falls short of describing all of what this grange has to offer.
Never mind that some of the biggest and sweetest blackberries in the county are grown here. The month of August means a bonanza of those juicy, tree-grown favorites--plums.
Although your grocer probably stocks only a few kinds, more than 140 varieties are grown commercially.
Skin colors run the gamut from deep black to green, while flesh flavors go from mouth-puckering tartness to extra sweetness.
All plums fall into one of two groups: clingstone and freestone. Clingstones are generally marketed for fresh eating, while the freestones are classified as fresh prunes. Freestone varieties are used for drying because the pit separates easily from the flesh.
While plums are not a great cash crop for Ventura County growers, a fresh supply of a few varieties is available to local consumers.
You'll find four varieties of plums at 4S Organic Berries. Of 15 acres that the Allens cultivate, about one acre is devoted to plums.
"Our favorite by far is the Santa Rosa variety," Clara Allen said recently over the phone. "It looks like we'll be planting more because they are so popular."
The favored Santa Rosa is a conical-shaped clingstone with deep red skin and a sugary-sweet yellow flesh. A bit oblong compared to the Santa Rosa, Satsuma plums are also a favorite of plum fanciers. "Those are similar in taste," Allen said, "but not quite as sweet."
And for those looking for a premium plum for drying, "the Italian prune plum is the best one," according to Allen.
This small, dark bluish-purple plum is "about the size of a quarter" and is a very versatile fruit.
"We get people from all over that purchase the Italian prune plum for drying and making jellies. It can be a bit tart, though, so it's not the best for eating straight from the tree," she said. "This variety hangs from the branches in thick bunches, and once they ripen, they fall right off. They cover the ground like snow."
Those who want to pick their own plums can do so. You'll be set loose in the orchard, a brown paper bag supplied by the Allens in hand. Or, if you prefer, the Allens offer bags of freshly picked plums for convenience. Either way, a medium-sized grocery bag filled with plums will cost you about $3.
If you come across a plum that's not quite ripe, Allen suggests setting it aside for a bit. "Left at room temperature, plums will continue to ripen and soften," she said. Simply place them inside a loosely closed paper bag and check daily.
"If you want to stop the ripening process, you can then put them in fridge until you're ready to serve them," she said.
And of course, as the name states, 4S Organics never uses pesticides. "We just let nature take its course," Allen said. "We don't even combat the birds. And if a worm wants a plum, we just let him have it."
Now, about those blackberries. We've seen them and they are indeed big. "They're called the Texas blackberry," Allen said, "and it's the largest strain that we know of." The 25-year-old vines are nearing the end of their season and there's enough fruit to last just another week or two. You can pick them, too, if you please.
You'll find the barn and the various fruits at 5208 Casitas Pass Road (California 150). 4S Organics' offerings are available only on weekends from noon into the early evening. "Watch for the American flag," Allen advised. "If it isn't flying, we're not open."
Call ahead just to be sure; 649-1191.
SERVING SUGGESTION ITALIAN PRUNE PLUM JELLY
This week's serving suggestion comes courtesy of Clara Allen, part proprietor of 4S Organic Berries near Ojai.
According to Clara, the farm's Italian Prune Plum makes a "wonderful" jelly.
First you'll want to rinse the fruit and remove all pits. A simple task, given this is a freestone variety.
Next, put the fruit in a large kettle, with the lid tightly closed. "Put the burner on very low and let it sit and stew for a minimum of one hour," Allen said. "By then it should be all mushy."
No water added to this recipe?
"None. The fruit contains enough water already," she said. "This way you get a pure product--not diluted."
Once stewing has concluded, strain pulp.
"Now you have pure fruit juice," Allen said.
To every five cups of juice, add one package of pectin and four cups of sugar, Allen said.
"Bring to a rolling boil for four minutes and it's then ready to put into jars," she said. It is important that the jars be sterilized.
Let cool and then properly seal the jars with hot paraffin.