The State’s Best Tastes

Hollywood is the undisputed Movie Capital of the Universe and Silicon Valley is still hailed as the Technology Capital of the World (not all the jobs having moved to India). But dozens of other proud capitals across California often go largely ignored, even by Californians. These are the capitals of food--or, more precisely, particular types of food. There are a lot of types. With some 80,000 farms, California churns out virtually every peck of the country’s commercially produced almonds, walnuts, pistachios, figs, artichokes, dates, olives, kiwis, nectarines and more. The Central Valley is rolling in hay and cotton and rice, peaches and tomatoes and citrus; the Central Coast is deep with wine grapes and strawberries. Head north, and you can count (and smell) the cows; go south, and you’ll see sun-drenched patches of winter vegetables. Dotting the vast farm belt are municipal claims to greatness--The Apricot Capital of the World, The Horseradish Capital of the World, The Raisin Capital of the World--that speak to the state’s fertile soil, rich history and penchant for roadside curiosities. And, frequently, the ingenuity of local chambers of commerce. Sometimes, the food item extolled is even grown in the vicinity. If you take the time to EXIT HERE, turn off your air-conditioning and roll down your windows (actually, don’t do that if you’re near Gilroy), you can have a different taste of California.



* The avocado capital of the world


A faded mural of a dancing Mr. Avocado Head on Old Mission Road welcomes visitors to You Know What. After that, the sole overt sign of avocadomania in this tranquil town of 43,000, with its Victorian-era houses and brick-building downtown, is the Avocado Animal Hospital on East Mission.

That’s how the locals want it, low-key and quiet, except during the annual Avocado Festival. For one day every April, it attracts nearly 100,000 free-spending visitors, including some who participate in the pit-spitting contest. Only natives are celebrated. Last year, as the festival approached, someone opened a couple of roadside stands stocked with expatriate avos. “The county closed them right down,” says George McManigle, a Fallbrook grower, proudly.

McManigle is standing in a grove of his avocado trees, architects of the dark-green Hass exemplars that are a few months short of harvesting. The sky is pure, unpolluted blue; the temperature a pleasant 75 or so; the noise of San Diego an hour away. “It’s not very profitable,” the farmer says of his enterprise. “But can you beat this?”

Over lunch (at the Garden Center Cafe on South Mission, where avocado and shrimp salad is on the menu) and dinner (at La Caseta on Vine Street, where the offerings include avocado-laced burrito Colorado and chimi de la casa), McManigle and a few friends discuss the history of Fallbrook, founded in the mid-1800s, and its favorite fruit. The latter took root after World War II, thanks to one Rudolf Hass, a reclusive Alhambra mailman and part-time horticulturist. In the 1930s, the civil servant perfected the avocado that bears his name and now composes 85% of the Fallbrook crop, a major contributor to California’s claim to fame as the No. 1 producer of avocados in the country.


The avo has a long history. It was called ahuacatl by the Aztecs, who suspected it was a sexual stimulant and, so, a forbidden fruit. But according to the California Avocado Commission, “science can neither confirm nor deny that the avocado is an aphrodisiac.”



* Home of the lemon festival

A small-but-spunky slice of the lost lemon hub of America lives on in the Inland Empire. The offramp marked “Corona” leads into a warren of industrial parks, mega malls, fast-food restaurants and belching 18-wheelers. And to the largest grove of lemon trees still standing here, at 510 W. Foothill Parkway, wedged ignominiously between a strip mall and a subdivision. “There it is,” says Marla Benson, pointing at 80 trees in Corona Heritage Park that are literally bursting with Eureka lemons. Benson is the president of the Corona Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit enterprise that oversees the five-acre park and aims to keep the local citrus industry alive, at least in its visitors’ imaginations.

Corona, now with 141,000 residents, was incorporated in 1896 and over time became known for its succulent fruit. Four decades ago, urban sprawl began chasing the growers away. Five years ago, Benson and like-minded citizens persuaded the Corona City Council to let them reclaim the 1930s-vintage headquarters buildings of the former Foothill Lemon Co.; the onetime company store is a museum devoted to the vanished lemon industry. Inside are complete sets of lovingly framed lemon crate labels, specialized farm implements and what’s advertised as “an extensive and rare collection of home juice extractors.”

In the old days, Benson says wistfully, the Corona Lemon Festival was a three-day celebration; now it’s one. Thanks to the efforts of volunteers, the first Sunday of every October is devoted to big-band music, a “best-dressed pet contest,” a fine art competition and, of course, a lemon bake-off. The 2004 Grand Prize Winner: Lemon Fluff, a brew of fresh lemon juice, sweetened condensed milk, Cool Whip and coconut in a graham cracker crust.




* The kiwi capital of the U.S.A.

Don’t bother looking for the sign; some say it was flattened by a car a few years ago. But this wide spot (population 5,550) on Highway 99, about 50 miles north of Sacramento, is The Kiwi Capital of the U.S.A. as well as the sister city of Te Puke, New Zealand, which happens to be The Kiwifruit Capital of the World.

A little history: Kiwis were once known as “Chinese gooseberries,” which still grow wild in the Chinese countryside. According to the California KiwiFruit Commission, the plants were first exported to the U.S. in 1904; seeds arrived in New Zealand in 1906. George Tanimoto, a World War II relocation camp veteran and a revered figure in the kiwi world, established the first Gridley nursery to cultivate kiwis in 1966.

Tanimoto was followed by agricultural iconoclasts such as Doug Wilson, a Vietnam combat vet, scuba diver and body surfer, who in 1978 pooled his money (“Mostly from a few car crashes,” the now 58-year-old Willie Nelson look-alike says, grinning), bought a local ranch, planted it with kiwis and hit the jackpot. In the late ‘70s a craze for kiwis swept Japan, and the growing band of Gridley kiwi ranchers prospered. Until 1992, that is, when the New Zealanders attempted to flood the American market with predatorily low-priced kiwis.

Facing ruin, the Gridley growers canceled the annual Kiwi Blossom Festival, hired Washington lobbyists and lawyers and got a protective tariff put in place. The Americans and New Zealanders eventually shook hands and made up. U.S. consumers embraced the fuzzy fruit, and Gridley, awash in kiwi vines, prospered once again.

Maybe some future kiwi conquests will be credited to Gary LaFrancis, a businessman married to Lindy LaFrancis, executive director of the California KiwiFruit Commission. An amateur chef, he’s in the midst of a multiyear self-assigned project to rewrite the 20-year-old “California KiwiFruit Cookbook.” He began the overhaul after he noticed it was heavy on desserts, with recipes incorporating gobs of cream and including unfortunate directions like: “place ingredients in Veg-a-Matic.” Recalls LaFrancis: “I thought I’d come up with some more contemporary and healthful kiwi recipes,” and he has. More than 100, in fact, including kiwi pizza (a crust of baked cookie dough covered with kiwis and other sliced fruit), kiwi tomato salad, kiwi with melon and prosciutto, and the unexpectedly delicious steak a la kiwi. For the latter, he marinates sirloin steak in crushed kiwis. Strangely, mate, it works.



Yuba City

* Prune--er, dried plum--capital of the U.S.

In the Sacramento Valley, the prune is king. Just don’t call it a prune.

Not long ago, market research indicated that consumers would avoid granny’s digestive aid like the plague but embrace precisely the same furrowed fruit if it had a name without so much ripe baggage. And so these days in Yuba City, the top-secret pitting machine at the processing plant owned by the Sunsweet cooperative--established in 1917 as the California Prune and Apricot Growers Assn.--pokes the seeds out of dried plums.

Some of the old-timers in these parts refuse to play along and continue to use the Other Word. And to talk about That.

“There’s no getting around it,” says Charlie Pfister, a 61-year-old Sunsweet grower. “Prunes are simply very good for the function of your body. They keep you regular, let’s face it. That’s why Asians love ‘em. And they’re right.”



* America’s chicken city

In Sonoma County, within extreme commuting range of San Francisco, is Petaluma, where a dentist in 1879 helped invent a chicken incubator. The rest is history. Sure, the once-drowsy farming community isn’t recognized as the “World’s Egg Basket” anymore, and it’s true that the business district was recently and aggressively rehabbed into an enterprise zone. And yes, weekends bring throngs of what used to be called “yuppies” strolling contentedly around 10 square blocks or so of restored early 20th century brick buildings occupied mostly by restaurants, art galleries, deep-tissue massage practitioners and antique purveyors.

But Petaluma’s feathered past is easy to find. “We’re the only town that celebrates cholesterol,” says Susan Villa, president of the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum. And that’s not only during the Butter and Egg Days festival each April. (It used to be just Egg Days; “butter” was added in 1981.) Although chicken and egg production peaked in 1945, according to the definitive work “Empty Shells: The Story of Petaluma, America’s Chicken City” (by Thea Lowry, published in 2000), the countryside is still dotted with chicken farms. Serious foodies swear by their fowl.

“Sure, I could save money by buying through corporate vendors,” says Wayne Van Akin, executive chef of Petaluma’s Sheraton hotel. “But this is Sonoma County, one of the gourmet centers of the country. So my owners feel it’s critical that I go the extra mile.” This includes, Van Akin says, concocting special dishes--crispy chicken, bacon and eggs with morel mushrooms--and buying from local companies such as the Petaluma Poultry Processors, producers of organic, free-range chickens.

Even as Van Akin is dreaming up new ways to highlight her on the Sheraton’s menu, a 4-week-old, 2 1/2-pound “Rosie” brand chick is free-ranging timidly from her well-ventilated, naturally lighted and climate-controlled coop at a Petaluma Poultry facility. She’s taking a break from her organic, antibiotic-free diet to venture outside, peck at the grass and eat several tasty bugs under the open sky. “This is really, really good for her,” says Mike Leventini, general manager of Petaluma Poultry. Rosie, he adds, has about three more weeks to enjoy herself. Then it’s our turn.



* The garlic capital, reloaded

You might want to be sitting down for this one: There is little or no garlic grown in this famous Santa Clara Valley town of more than 47,000. For economic and climatic reasons, the Garlic Capital of the World now imports almost all of its garlic from the San Joaquin Valley. Increasingly, the Christopher Ranch, Gilroy’s largest employer, is importing the stuff from China, too.

And nobody cares, because garlic is still Gilroy’s bread and butter. Even though the raw material arrives by truck, more than 70 million pounds of it is sorted, peeled, cleaned, sliced, diced and otherwise processed each year at the 120-acre Christopher Ranch facility just off Highway 101. Which explains the unmistakable scent (you might say odor, but whisper if you do) that wafts more or less constantly.

The annual Gilroy Garlic Festival, whose 27th edition was held last weekend, is arguably the most famous food festival in America. All over the world, declare lifelong Gilrovians like Jennifer Speno--Miss Gilroy Garlic in 1987 and this year the president of the Gilroy Garlic Festival Assn.--the words “Gilroy” and “garlic,” just like “Los Angeles” and “SigAlert,” are synonymous.

The reason for all of this is recited to visitors ceaselessly. The Story: In 1978, just as much of America was tossing away its cans of Accent spice, the late Rudy Melone, then president of Gilroy’s Gavilan College, dreamed up the idea of a garlic gala that would bring renown, and tourist dollars, to Gilroy.

The result was the first festival, in August 1979, back when they were still growing garlic within the city limits. A prime attraction of the festival, as it has been ever since, was a section called Gourmet Alley, in which Gilroy volunteers cooked and served garlic-spiked favorites such as garlic shrimp and calamari, “festival style.” By the early ‘80s, the town was breaking out in roadside billboards and garlic-themed souvenir shops, and in 2004 more than 120,000 paid $10 a head to attend the aromatic fete.

If you happen to spend a few minutes with Don Christopher, the founder of Christopher Ranch, you might even see garlic being cultivated. He’ll ease into his Mercedes, drive to nearby San Juan Bautista, bounce down some dusty, rutted dirt roads to a small plot his company owns, pick up some soon-to-be-harvested stalks of fine-looking elephant garlic and gaze at his stinking rose bouquet. “It’s nice that we have this growing out here,” he’ll say, “because I like to look at it every once in a while.” For some people, smelling it 24/7 doesn’t do the trick.


Pismo Beach

* The ex-clam capital of California

Call it the ultimate bait and switch. The clams disappeared from this thriving seaside town, almost exactly halfway between San Francisco and L.A., about 30 years ago. Over-clamming tourists and gorging sea otters did the dirty deed. But did the city fathers of this middle-class destination resort promptly notify the governor, alert the media, then shift their promotional emphasis to, say, the annual profusion of monarch butterflies?

No way. They began importing clams from the East Coast and elsewhere, erected a few diversionary clam sculptures, kept their annual two-day Clam Festival on the fall calendar and certainly didn’t discourage citizens from continuing with their clam-themed motels and seafood restaurants. You can either (1) protest this blatant hokum by patronizing nearby Avila Beach or San Luis Obispo, or (2) go along happily with the hoax by stopping at bistros such as Brad’s, the Cracked Crab and Splash Cafe for some of the best clam chowder this side of--oh, never mind.



* The artichoke center of the world

How’s this for American dreaming? A couple of months ago, Janet Salazar, a 32-year-old mother of three who emigrated from Mexico 17 years ago, borrowed money against her house and purchased the Giant Artichoke Restaurant, a splendid piece of vernacular architecture that has welcomed busloads of tourists from every corner of the globe and plied them with artichoke soup, steamed artichokes, fried artichokes, Giant Artichoke T-shirts and more for time immemorial. “I worked here for five years as a waitress and asked the owners to let me try to buy them out when they retired. They kept their promise,” says Salazar, who is keeping the Giant Artichoke’s traditional I-can’t-believe-they-can-serve-artichokes-that-way menu largely intact.

At the other end of Castroville’s half-mile-long main drag is La Scuola, a restaurant located in an equally historic building that began its life as a schoolhouse in 1869. It’s owned by Janet Guglielmo, a 43-year-old single mother who worked her way up in the restaurant business on the Monterey Peninsula before buying and opening this classy boite, which serves artichoke-accented Northern Italian fare, in 2000. “Artichokes work very well in Italian cuisine,” says Guglielmo, who caters to the expense-account crowd from companies such as Castroville-based Ocean Mist Farms, the area’s largest artichoke grower. “That’s because the first artichokes came here from Italy.”

Connecting the two restaurants is a funky collection of frame houses, bars and Mexican grocery stores. About 15,000 outsiders drop in on this melange every May, when Castroville (population 6,700) throws a two-day party for the herbaceous perennial. Most attend the Castroville Artichoke Festival for the car show, the RV jamboree, the parade and the exhibition of entries in the AGROart Competition. For your sculpture to be displayed, it must be at least 60% fresh produce and 10% artichokes. Don’t laugh: There’s $5,000 in artichoke prize money on the table.




Kiwi Salsa

Makes 3 cups

Adapted from the California KiwiFruit Commission.

3 to 4 kiwis, peeled and diced (1 1/2 cups)

1 orange, peeled and diced

1 cup peeled and diced jicama

1/2 cup diced sweet red or yellow bell pepper

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

1 tablespoon lime juice

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1/2 small jalapeno pepper, minced, seeds and vein removed

1/4 teaspoon salt

In a large bowl, combine all of the ingredients, mixing well. Chill briefly and serve.


Cream of Roasted Garlic Soup

Serves 4

Adapted from the “Garlic Lovers’ Greatest Hits” cookbook, 20th anniversary edition.

2 medium-sized heads of garlic

1 teaspoon olive oil

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 cup French bread cubes

1/2 cup finely chopped onion

1 1/2 cups buttermilk

1/2 cup cream

1 (8-ounce) Yukon gold baked potato, skin removed

2 tablespoons cognac

1/4 teaspoon fresh dill

Salt to taste

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the garlic heads on a cookie sheet, sprinkle with the olive oil and bake for 1 hour. Let cool. Cut off the end of each clove and squeeze out the contents. (The garlic will be soft and creamy.) Set aside.

Heat 1 tablespoon butter in a small saute pan. Add the minced garlic and bread cubes and toss to coat. Cook over low heat for a few minutes, until the cubes are lightly browned. Reserve for garnish.

Saute the chopped onion in the remaining 2 tablespoons butter until softened. Add the buttermilk and cream and simmer for 5 minutes. Pour the mixture into a food processor. Rice the potato and add with the garlic to the onion and buttermilk mixture. Puree until smooth. Return the mixture to the saute pan. Add the cognac, dill and salt. Simmer for 5 minutes. If the soup is too thin, add more potato. If the soup is too thick, add more buttermilk. Serve immediately, garnished with additional dill and the croutons.


Heidi Bachmann’s Avocado and Smoked Albacore Salad

Serves 4

1/2 cup finely chopped sweet Vidalia or Hawaiian onion

Juice of 1 lemon

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 Belgian endive

1 firm, ripe avocado, thinly sliced

1/2 pound smoked albacore, sliced

Lemon peel, Italian parsley and red salmon caviar, for garnish

Place the onion in a small bowl with just enough lemon juice to cover. Marinate for 1 hour. Season with salt and pepper and stir in the olive oil. Wash and drain the endive and separate the leaves. Arrange the avocado slices on a serving plate, leaving room for the albacore and endive. Toss the albacore and endive with the lemon dressing, reserving 1 tablespoon to drizzle over the avocado. Season with salt and pepper. Arrange the albacore and endive next to the avocado and garnish with julienne of lemon peel. Sprinkle with Italian parsley. Place a dollop of red caviar next to the avocado, and sprinkle a small amount as accent. Serve chilled.


Baby Artichoke Chicken Saute

Serves 4

From the Artichoke Advisory Board of California.

16 California baby artichokes

1/4 cup olive oil, divided

4 chicken breast halves, skinned, boned and cut into chunks

2 red or yellow onions, thickly sliced

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil and 1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary or 1 teaspoon dried basil and 1/4 teaspoon dried rosemary, crushed

1/2 cup chicken broth

1 pound fettuccine, cooked and drained

To prepare the baby artichokes: Bend back the outer petals, snapping them off at the base. Continue snapping off the petals until the leaves are half green (at the top) and half yellow. Using a stainless-steel knife to minimize discoloration, cut the top cone of the leaves at the point where the yellow meets the green. (The green is fibrous.) Cut the stem even with the base and trim any remaining green from the base. Cut into halves and plunge into acidulated water.

Brown the chicken in a large skillet with 2 tablespoons olive oil; remove from the pan and set aside. Add remaining 2 tablespoons of oil and saute the onions until tender, about 15 minutes. Add the artichokes to the skillet along with the garlic, basil and rosemary. Cook over medium heat until the artichokes are tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in the browned chicken and drizzle with chicken broth; heat through. Add salt and pepper to taste, if desired. Serve over hot fettuccine.


Seriously Lemon Tart

Serves 8

Adapted from “Corona Lemon Heritage Cookbook.”

Fresh lemons are a must in this tart, which uses lemon sections and packs an intense lemon pucker. To get the crispness in the brown sugar topping, place the tart under a broiler flame, but briefly. Watch it carefully because sugar can burn easily.

1 prepared pie crust

1 1/2 cups sugar

2 teaspoons grated lemon rind

1 cup lemon sections (about 4 large lemons), seeds removed

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 large egg whites, lightly beaten

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

12 very thin lemon slices

2 tablespoons brown sugar

Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Using cooking spray, coat the bottom of a 9-inch round tart pan with a removable bottom. Press the dough into the bottom and up the sides of the pan. Line the bottom of the dough with a piece of aluminum foil; arrange pie weights or dried beans on the foil. Bake for 5 to 8 minutes. Remove pie weights and cool on a wire rack.

Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees. Combine the sugar, lemon rind, lemon sections and salt in a medium non-aluminum saucepan and cook 4 minutes over medium heat or until sugar dissolves. Combine the egg whites and eggs in a large bowl, stirring well with a whisk. Gradually add the hot lemon mixture to the egg white mixture, stirring constantly with a whisk, and pour into the prepared pie crust. Arrange the lemon slices on the custard and bake for 10 minutes. Sprinkle with brown sugar. Bake an additional 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from the oven. Preheat the broiler and broil about 1 minute, or until lightly browned. Cool on a wire rack for 1 hour. Chill 4 hours or until set. Cut into wedges to serve.