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Market Watch: Prime time for Blenheim apricots, Snow Queen white nectarines and Persian mulberries

Fred AndersonLos Angeles Times

For stone fruit growers and buyers, the cool, moist spring yielded mixed results: disastrous losses for many cherry farmers whose crops split in the rain; a banner year for apricots, which have thrived in the milder weather; and a delayed harvest, with so-so quality, for many early peach and nectarine varieties. This coming week, however, a veritable fruit storm will hit the Southland, with some of the year's most eagerly awaited, high-flavored fruits, including Blenheim apricots, Snow Queen white nectarines and Persian mulberries.

Blenheims are a signature delicacy of local markets, with the juicy flesh and intense flavor that apricot lovers crave. In inland areas like the San Joaquin Valley the sun heats the pits and turns the adjacent flesh to mush, so most Blenheims are grown near the coast, where the moderate climate allows the variety to develop full size and the best flavor.

Most commercial Blenheim growers traditionally dried their fruit, a labor-intensive and costly process; in recent years, unable to compete with cheaper Turkish imports, many growers bulldozed their orchards, leaving perhaps 1,000 acres across California, estimates Bill Coates, a farm advisor in San Benito and Santa Clara counties, where most of the remaining plantings are. That's a drastic decline from 1988, when Blenheim led the state in apricot production, and the variety is seemingly headed for commercial extinction. Farmers markets, farm stands and home gardens are almost the only sources for fresh Blenheims.

The crop this year is looking to be modest in quantity but high in quality. "Everything's taking its sweet time to ripen," says Mike Cirone, who grows in San Luis Obispo and markets under the See Canyon banner at the Santa Monica Wednesday and Hollywood farmers markets. "But the fruit is plumper and larger from the all the rain we had in May. It looks pristine, and tastes great. I'm stoked."

Eric and Helle Todd of Forcefield Farm in Santa Paula, who sell at the same two markets, and sometimes at Beverly Hills and Thousand Oaks, are another source for excellent Blenheims. Their 'cots have tended to be small and blemished with cracks and sunburn, but "this year the sun has been pretty gentle," says Eric. Most important, there's something about their stony soil that imparts to the fruit an unsurpassed rich, concentrated flavor.

Remember that Blenheims ripen from the inside out, so even dull orange fruits can be very tasty, but a light freckling or blush is often a sign of a fruit that enjoyed a favored, sun-kissed position on the tree. They bruise easily, so if you want to get them home intact, be sure to bring a flat carton with plastic cups and padding on the bottom – a good tip for all stone fruit.

Snow Queen white nectarines

Unlike most modern white nectarines, which are low in acidity and flavor, the Snow Queen variety at its best may be the most delicious stone fruit in the world, with dense, buttery, melting flesh, a perfect balance of sweetness and acidity, and a most intense, lingering aftertaste. There are just a few growers, however, and talking to any of them you'll soon find out why: If it drizzles two counties over, or if you look crosswise at a Snow Queen, it splits and develops brown rot. Moreover, only some of the fruits, the ones with speckled, leathery flesh and a deep, creamy background color near the stem, fulfill its potential for perfection; fruits with smooth red skin can be tart and actually less delicious than common varieties.

The longtime champion of this variety, introduced in 1975 by Armstrong Nurseries, is Art Lange of Reedley, who is in his 80s and rarely makes it to markets himself these days. A neighbor, Ron Cornelsen, has also planted Snow Queens and sells both their fruit under the Honey Crisp banner at the Santa Monica Wednesday and Beverly Hills markets. John Hurley of Summer Harvest Farm, from Dinuba, sells excellent organic Snow Queens at Beverly Hills and Santa Monica Saturday (both Virginia Park and Third and Arizona). Truman and Betty Kennedy of Dinuba also sell organic Snow Queens (although they usually call them Stanwick, which is really a different, much later variety) at Santa Monica Wednesday, Saturday (Third and Arizona) and Sunday.

If you do prefer super-sweet low-acid white nectarines, try Arctic Rose, the first and arguably the best variety of this kind. It is small and homely, with leathery and often sunburned skin, but it's outlandishly sweet, with a tinge of acidity and even a smack of astringency in the skin, to add interest. It's available from Balderama (Crenshaw, Echo Park, Hollywood, and Santa Monica Wednesday) and Honey Crisp.

If you're in the market for a yellow-fleshed nectarine with classic flavor, try the Mayfair variety, grown by Jack and Terry Balderama of Orosi. Introduced in 1965 by Fred Anderson, the developer of the modern nectarine, it's got that wild tang so often missing from more recent varieties. Look for specimens with a deep golden background color and leathery skin.

Persian mulberries

As if this weren't enough, Persian mulberries have started showing up in markets. If you've tried only the much blander regular mulberries, you should taste Persians, which are a different species. They're later in season and incomparably richer in flavor, both very sweet and very tart, with inky black, dangerously staining juice.

Tenerelli Orchards has only six bearing trees, but whether it's their exact strain (there are half a dozen or more), their microclimate or their farming practices, they often seem to have the best quality. For the next few weeks, as the harvest allows, they'll be at Beverly Hills and Santa Monica Wednesday.

Weiser Family Farms should have a few by next Wednesday, and Garcia Organic Farm will have them in a few weeks, also at Santa Monica. When buying Persian mulberries, be sure that they are deep purplish black, with little or no red, otherwise they will be unpleasantly acidic.

Incidentally, and rather improbably, Andrea Doreen Tenerelli, who sells mulberries at the Beverly Hills market, was named after the Italian cruise ship Andrea Doria, which sank in 1956. She was born a few years later, and her father, an Italian American, loved the ship so much that even after it became synonymous with maritime disaster, he named his daughter after it. That's amore!

food@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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