Imagine eating a peach, nectarine or plum during this stone fruit season. Sweet flavors burst in your mouth, the heady aroma envelopes you and the exploding juices run down your arm and chin. Or not.
Too often, the fruit available today just doesn't deliver this full-monty experience. Sold simply as "peaches" or "plums," it's too firm. It's barely sweet. There's not enough juice to run anywhere. Blame factory farming or suburbia encroaching on California's agricultural land or just the hideous economics of making a living by growing produce. But most of us are still in search of that mythical juicy, sweet summer fruit. Can you even find it?
Drive to the southern end of the once-agriculturally-magnificent Santa Clara Valley to sleepy Morgan Hill and follow the weathered signs for Andy's Orchard. This unassuming operation of around 50 patched-together acres is what has been called "the Château Pétrus of stone fruit." While other orchardists dry their mediocre fruit, focus on higher-margin crops like cherries or -- more likely -- have sold their land to developers, tall, low-key Andy Mariani, who's in his late 60s, is a rare artisanal grower who's "going purely for flavor" in the fruit he grows, he explains.
Mariani's 250-plus varieties of stone fruit -- cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums and hybrids -- represent the most extensive collection of heirloom fruit on the West Coast. Local Michelin two-stars like Manresa in Los Gatos, Baumé in Palo Alto and demanding chefs on the East Coast have Andy's Orchard on speed dial during the summer fruit season. "Right now, my problem is having a lot more demand than supply," he admits.
In the conservative farming community, Mariani is viewed as a maverick. Consider his efforts with apricots, which the public largely dismissed years ago because "they thought that apricots didn't taste like anything," he says. While other local orchardists simply dry pedestrian varieties, he is helping consumers rediscover this lovely orange fruit.
According to Mariani, "You have to find the right varieties" and not be put off by the cultivation challenges. He's now growing 60 kinds of apricot from across the globe such as the Lasgerdii Mashad, a Persian variety whose ethereal taste chef David Kinch has said is like eating a cloud. "The newest trend," he says, is small, outrageously sweet CandyCots; the bright-orange Yuliya from Central Asia tastes like honeyed marmalade.
Besides all his heirloom, hand-picked fruit varieties, Mariani is a horticultural wizard who continually experiments with cross breeding or refining fruit, such as the incredibly sweet, juicy, flavorful Baby Crawford peach. This unnamed potential drying peach was rejected by UC Davis but resurrected, improved and christened by Mariani.
"We have one we're calling 'juice ball,'" he says. "It's a nectarine that when you bite into it, it's like a waterfall." Then there are indescribably delicious varieties he grows like the Raspberry Red nectarine, with luscious flesh and complex flavors, or the stunning Silver Logan white peach with creamy texture, gushing juice and a super-rich, balanced taste.
After eating Mariani's varieties, it's depressing to learn details about the vast majority of California stone fruit orchards, which have mostly been relocated from the coastal areas with ideal climate like Santa Clara County. "Most peaches and nectarines now come from the Central Valley and they're mass produced," he explains. "They pick 'em on the green side. Even the varieties themselves are being developed with more red blush only to hide the fact that they're being picked green.
"They put them in bins, then they dump 'em, defuzz 'em, put fungicides on 'em and pack 'em. Then they go to a central distribution area and they can sit there for several weeks," Mariani recites, with a sad look in his blue eyes. "An ideal fruit for growers now is something you can treat like gravel. You can throw it into the bins. But it has no sugar, no flavor."
Mariani likes to remind people that "The riper the fruit, the more perishable it is," which underscores why supermarket stone fruit is frequently so disappointing. Another downside to putting green fruit in cold storage is that this creates the mealy texture that ultimately makes eating fruit a letdown.
He bemoans the myth that equates redness in peaches to ripeness, recalling the customer who once looked at some of his gloriously ripe, yellow Suncrest peaches and asked how long they needed to sit at home before turning red and thus being ready to eat. Mariani contrasts this with a high-production peach variety called Yukon King that is "red all over and hard as a rock. When you bite into it, it breaks off in chunks like Styrofoam."
He says he has become "jaundiced" about farmers markets. "There's a lot of abuse," he reports, with some vendors buying fruit from distribution centers and reselling it as their own. "That's illegal but it happens a lot," he notes. For this reason, Mariani trucks his fruit over 300 miles to the only farmers market he trusts, in Santa Monica.
Fortunately for Bay Area residents, Mariani has a retail store on his property (generally, fruit costs $3.50 per pound, which is equivalent to what the few other top-drawer producers charge) and his fruit is sold by produce vendors like Sigona's (in Redwood City and Palo Alto) and C.J. Olson in Sunnyvale. The low-travel approach is a fruit subscription in which luscious, just-picked fruit is shipped to your door the next day.
Mariani's operation might be a throwback to a time when fruit tasted better and it was easier for small farmers to make a living, but it's not immune to modern-day pressures. "We're an island now," he says, pointing at the spreading housing developments encroaching on his orchards. But as long as he's able, Mariani wants his chin-dripping, exquisite fruit to continue going into the mouths of grateful customers.
Andy Mariani's tips for selecting stone fruit
- Look for local cherries anywhere from early to mid June. Apricots come in anywhere from late June to early July. Peaches, nectarines and plums come in from July through August.
- While there are early-season varieties, the best tasting varieties are those at peak season.
- Get familiar with varieties and seek them out at farmers markets and stores rather than just buying generic supermarket fruit.
- Some of the best fruit is cracked and ugly. Fantastic flavor is hiding underneath.
- Brown spots in some apricots can mean that's a particularly sweet spot.
- Don't assume red skin means ripeness in peaches. Look on the stem end at the ground color. If that's gold or yellow, then generally, the peach is riper. If it's green, the fruit is not ripe.
- Look for the speckles on nectarines, which indicate sugar content and that the fruit is particularly sweet and was grown toward the outside of the tree, where the better fruit is located.
- Avoid steep piles of fruit in the market because no tree-ripened fruit can handle such treatment. Such piles are of unripe fruit.
Feel and aroma
- For the most flavor, first bit into the sun-kissed end opposite the stem.
- Cooking peaches ruins the flavor.
1615 Half Road
Morgan Hill, CA 95037
Phone: (408) 782-7600
Hours (store): Open May 15-December 31; weekdays, 10-6; weekends, 10-4.
Facebook: Andy's Orchard