Most people aren't neutral on the subject of broccoli: They detest it (President Bush in this camp) or they adore it (count here those who raise it in North County and elsewhere).
Although the vegetable has been a staple of European cookery since Roman times, it wasn't until the early 1920s that broccoli began to be cultivated in the United States on a commercial basis.
The success of Italian farmers in California's Santa Clara Valley with broccoli is responsible for turning it into a household word. Broccoli's distant cousin, the stronger-flavored broccoli raab or rapini, a relative newcomer to supermarket shelves, is fast gaining recognition, too.
"Family legend recounts that we were probably the first commercial broccoli growers in the United States in the '20s," says Jim Manacero, executive vice president of D'Arrigo Brothers of California, based in Salinas.
Andrew D'Arrigo arrived in Boston in 1906 to pursue engineering studies. His brother joined him a few years later. After serving in World War I, however, the two brothers forsook their engineering careers to supply their fellow Italians in Boston with the fruits and vegetables they used to find in their homeland. Soon new sources for the commodities were necessary.
D'Arrigo Brothers opened its doors in Stockton in 1922 when the two brothers bought their own land and developed their own sources for the broccoli, rapini and anise so prevalent in Italian cuisine.
Today, the D'Arrigos own several patented varieties of broccoli and grow close to 5,000 acres of the vegetable in various parts of California and Yuma, Ariz.
According to Manacero, D'Arrigo Brothers is also the largest grower of rapini in the world. "Most of our rapini goes to the Italian markets on the East Coast market," Manacero says. As it does for broccoli, D'Arrigo Brothers owns several patents on broccoli raab.
In the Salinas Valley, third-generation farmer Robert Scattini of Luis Scattini and Sons is specializing in green vegetables, including broccoli.
"We use different farming techniques," the grower says. "We don't have to water quite as much as they have to inland. Our cooler climate is better suited to greens, especially to artichokes."
In late winter, fields of broccoli, lettuce and artichokes cover the family acres that stretch between Salinis and the ocean. The pungent odor of broccoli and cauliflower permeates the air.
Scattini has responded to a marked increase in vegetable consumption over the past few years by increasing its acreage accordingly.
"We try to have commodities at all times," he says. Scattini harvests broccoli every month and, like many growers in the Salinas area, ships broccoli all over the world.
In North County, a particularly showy type of broccoli is popular with at least two growers.
Among the dozens of other varieties of vegetables on his farm, Tim Connelly favors the Romanesco broccoli, which comes to a spiraling bloom.
"I decided to plant it because the shape is so unusual," he says. "It's a gorgeous plant in the fields."
Each plant averages 3 feet in height and can spread to 3 feet in diameter.
"All you end up with is a singular head that's marketable, but it's denser than cauliflower, so it is harder to overlook," Connelly says. The San Diego chefs he deals with also appreciate the Romanesco's purple blush as a colorful addition to a plate.
"It's very dressy," Connelly says. "It's conical in shape and spirals in, and each individual floret does the same."
Margie Oakes of Oaks Knoll Farm in Fallbrook also says that Romanesco broccoli is one of the most beautiful vegetables in her fields. She obtained the original seed from Italy.
"It reminds me of a green volcano with volcanic ash running down the side," she says. "The center is green, and it sometimes has a purple tinge."
The vegetable has the flavor of mild broccoli, says the grower, who likes to steam Romanesco until it's fork-tender. Unlike other greens, Romanesco retains its color, even after it has been cooked. "Once people buy it, they come back and buy it again," Oakes says.
So flavorful is the raw vegetable that, according to Connelly, his young daughter and her friends, "who hardly eat anything else straight from the garden, like to pick it and have it as a snack dipped in Ranch dressing."
To the consternation of growers, aphids also find broccoli to their liking. Even the organic-type sprays Connelly uses can't quite deter the pest from giving up the tightly bunched broccoli plant.
"The head of the broccoli is so dense, it's very difficult to control that pest," he says. "It's a never-ending battle."
But the real enemy in raising broccoli is time: The vegetable has a long, somewhat unpredictable growing period. Varieties of Romanesco broccoli mature at different rates--many take about 75 days.
Connelly constantly experiments with new varieties, but hasn't yet found the ideal Romanesco for his Ramona location. But his interest in the purple-tinged vegetable is so keen that this year he spent $400 for a quarter of a pound of a new variety of seeds. The new variety has a shorter growing period--45 days--and the plants all mature at the same time, which saves the grower time and energy. The hardy broccoli can also take a winter freeze.
As for broccoli raab or rapini, "this vegetable really tastes like a vegetable," Connelly says. "It's delicious when added to spaghetti sauce right at the end."
The delicate blooms bring to mind a broccoli stalk gone to seed. Its name derives from the Italian word rapa , actually the term used for turnip. Like the turnip, broccoli raab is known for its strong flavor, bordering on bitterness.
Connelly is partial to the vegetable for its unusual appearance as well as for its flavor.
"It can be picked with flowers attached. Don't cut off the stem or you won't have anything left," he says, "the heads are so small." Keep it cold until ready for use.
It is a staple of Italian and Portuguese cuisines, makes a wonderful addition to pasta sauces and soups. The Chinese often use a milder variety in stir-frys.
D'Arrigo Brothers of California, 383 Market St., Salinas, CA 93902. (408) 424-3955. Wholesale only.
Luis Scattini & Sons, P.O. Box 1159, Castroville, CA 95012. (408) 633-3509. Broccoli distributed in the San Diego area under Green Glen and Don Castro labels.
Connelly Farms, 456 Telford Lane, Ramona, CA 92065. (619) 789-5293. Wholesale to restaurants only.
Margie Oakes, Oakes Knoll Ranch, P.O. Box 252, Fallbrook, CA 92028. (619) 728-0158. Sells only at Vista Farmer's market. Sells about $1 a pound.