The Irvine Saturday farmers market is the largest and best in Orange County, but it's a mixed bag. It has some worthy local small farmers who come in person, along with more commercial farms, and even a few who have been sanctioned previously for cheating by agricultural authorities or other managers.
Orange County Produce, owned by the family of the previous California agriculture secretary, A.G. Kawamura, farms on remnants of undeveloped local land, a bittersweet reminder of the county's past agricultural glory. The stand offers gorgeous, pristine yellow chard, reasonably sweet Ventana and Camarosa strawberries in supermarket-style clamshells and Hass avocados, just approaching prime season, in a convenient range of maturities, from hard green to ripe black.
Cold weather the past week has delayed the San Joaquin Delta asparagus harvest, but small quantities of the vernal delicacy should be available by next weekend, says Roscoe Zuckerman, the preeminent supplier at local markets. In addition to Irvine, he sells at Corona del Mar, Long Beach Southeast, Hollywood, Studio City, Encino, Pasadena and Santa Monica on Wednesdays and Sundays.
It looks like summer at the stand of Viva Andres of Orosi and Dinuba, who offers an outstanding array of greenhouse-grown vegetables, including tender purple and green Filipino eggplant, super-fresh long beans, okra and bitter melons.
Miguel Olivares grows about 280 acres of sweet potatoes in northern Merced County, the state's leading district for that crop. His vendor at the Irvine market carries six varieties, including Okinawan, with tan skin and dryish purple flesh; Dianne, with rose skin and moist orange flesh; and O'Henry, with white skin and smooth, aromatic golden flesh.
Bud Johnson of Cheesewright Creamery, who just started selling in the noncertified section, grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin before moving to California to work as a failure analyst in the semiconductor industry. Last year he retired from his day job and started making cow-milk cheese at the Drake goat dairy plant in Ontario, Calif. Currently he offers cheese curds, very fresh, mild nuggets from an early stage in the cheese-making process; soon he'll also have aged cheddar and fromage blanc. He also sells at the Laguna Hills, Orange County Fairgrounds and Tustin markets.
Irvine farmers market, Campus Drive at Bridge Road, Saturdays 8 a.m. to noon.
The mystery of 'lemon plums'
For several years, yellow, pointed plums imported from Chile in February, marketed as "lemon plums," have excited curiosity and confusion. Because they somewhat resemble lemons in color and shape, some have even supposed that they're some novel hybrid of citrus and plum.
Of course, such a cross of species from distant botanical families is no more possible than an antelope-aardvark. So what is this lemon plum? It looks a little bit like Kelsey, the first Asian plum variety brought to California, in 1870, or its seedling, Wickson, one of the leading plums grown here a century ago; both, like the mysterious lemon plum, range from green to yellow to red, depending on ripeness, are elongated at the apex and tend to have gum pockets — hollow, crusty cavities next to the seed. It even more closely resembles Dolly, a 1987 variety from the renowned breeder Floyd Zaiger, in turning red at the tip even when the rest of the fruit is yellow.
As it turns out, however, the lemon plum is a variety from Ben-Dor Fruits and Nurseries, an innovative Israeli breeder. It is called "Lamoon," which is Arabic for "lemon." In addition to the original, Ben-Dor offers seven similar varieties in the Lamoon series, ripening from June to September in the Northern Hemisphere.
According to Fernando Balart, a marketing manager for the Chilean Fruit Exporters Assn., five to eight Chilean growers cultivate the lemon plum on a total of about 200 to 250 acres. The harvest in Chile is early January to early February, and it takes about two weeks to get from the farm to the United States distribution system. Its combination of high sugar and moderate acidity appeals particularly to Asian American buyers, he added.
The flavor of samples bought at supermarkets over the past two weeks ranged from marginally edible, for the first green specimens just out of the box, to fairly juicy and sweet, with a mild but pleasant flavor, for deep yellow fruits at full ripeness. Denizens of Moose Lake, Minn., may well be grateful that such imports brighten their winter, so they don't have to subsist solely on rutabagas; here in Southern California, where fresh local citrus, cherimoyas and strawberries are abundant, antipodean lemon plums may be less appealing, but are still a good choice for those who crave plums in February.
Will the Lamoon plums be grown in California some day, so we can taste what they're like when picked fully mature? Reedley-based Family Tree Farms has the exclusive rights to Ben-Dor's varieties in California, and is evaluating the Lamoons to see if they are worth growing here, says Eric Wuhl, the farm's director of research and development.
There is a Chilean fruit, a pink seedless muscat grape, that is worth a special trip to the supermarket, since it's very sweet and rich in flavor, and nothing quite like it is grown in the United States. These grapes range in color from light green to deeply blushed with pink (the ripest and best), with a softer, more succulent texture than the firm seedless muscats that have been planted in California over the past decade. They're a few weeks later than usual this year but will be available at Whole Foods stores from mid-March to mid-April.