Are you sure you’re eating the most delicious peaches you could be eating? I thought I was -- until Andy Mariani of Andy’s Orchard in Morgan Hill put two peaches in my hand.
First, I try the kind of peach I typically buy in the market: the size of a softball, with a rosy blush. Mariani tells me that blush hides the fact that peach was picked green. That's so it’s easy to ship long distances, store for weeks on end, and display in big, attractive piles.
It's crunchy, and a little bit tart. It's not bad at all, this June Time peach, but it's a fruit I would bake in a pie rather than eat raw.
Then Mariani hands me a little, yellow peach the size of a baseball. It's an heirloom variety called “Gold Dust.” This peach is so juicy, I'm an immediate mess. And wow, is it delicious: sweet, but with a bright acidity that sets my taste buds alight.
These days, just a handful of lush, green orchards like Mariani's recall the era long gone when Silicon Valley was called the Valley of Heart’s Delight for its stone fruit: apricots, cherries, plums, and peaches.
The fruit farmers left survive by serving the people who run high end restaurants and specialty markets; the kind of people who treasure heirloom varieties like the Gold Dust -- and thrill to new varieties that share the same qualities.
"The tastiness, the juiciness, the old-fashioned kind of flavors. There’s never been a problem with demand for this kind of fruit, because it’s really, really tasty," says Mariani, who's a second generation farmer. His parents moved to Morgan Hill in the late 1950s from an orchard in Cupertino that sat across the street from what is now Apple's headquarters.
But back before this region was called Silicon Valley, it was most famous for dried fruit. "There wasn't a national system of highways. You couldn't you couldn't truck fresh fruit to the New York markets. We had no airplanes to speak of. You had to dry your fruit to make it a more durable product," Mariani says.
Only locals knew how delicious the fresh fruit was.
An open secret for locals
Santa Clara Valley has an advantage over other fruit-growing regions because of its geography, tucked away from the coast, but not too far from it.
"It has warmth, but it also has mildness, especially at night," Mariani explains. "After a hot day, fruit trees need to rest. A lot of times in the Central Valley, it'll go up to 100 degrees during the day and go down to about 85 at night."
In the Santa Clara Valley, the day temperatures are cooler and the night temperatures are cooler, too. That means the fruit can stay on the tree longer, and the longer the fruit stays on the trees, the more sugar it develops. The flesh is firmer, and juicier. “Tree-ripened,” it turns out, is not just an advertising slogan.
Tasty though they are, though, these fruits are expensive. They bruise easily, and need to be sold and consumed right away. From an economic perspective, the Central Valley wins on every score, not just because the land is cheaper.
That means most of the varieties you see in the markets will be ones that do well in the Central Valley's heat. So the Blenheim apricot, a delicate creature that thrived for decades in the temperate Santa Clara Valley, has given way to the heartier, blander Patterson.
"They taste like cardboard," Mariani says. "But they're durable, you know, and very productive. You get 20 tons to the acre whereas with the Blenheim, you get you get ten."
Mariani laments the way the Patterson's mediocre taste has deflated the market for California apricots in general, but he's not weeping for days gone by in general. The market dominance of heartier, blander fruit provides him with a market opening to deliver the Blenheims and other varieties that make foodies swoon.
Looking for a taste of home or childhood
Many of the pilgrims who drive out to Andy's Orchard in Morgan Hill come for varieties he picked up in Central Asia. Or France. Mariani won over LA-based food writer and "fruit detective" David Karp with a greengage plum Karp deemed better than any he tasted in the region near Toulouse.
"I met Andy when writing an article about apricots for Saveur 25 years ago," Karp tells me. "I asked the Apricot Advisory Board who was a real apricot connoisseur, and they said, 'That’s Andy Mariani.'” Over the years, Karp was so impressed, he became a business partner with Marianni, investing in the orchards and helping to stoke demand.
For Karp, "The Santa Clara Valley ... is to certain fruits what Napa Valley is to wine." As for Mariani's commitment to flavor, Karp adds, "He loves certain heirloom varieties because he grew up with them and expects fruit to taste like that."
Every Wednesday, Andy's Orchard sends a van to the Santa Monica Farmers Market, mainly to fulfill pre-orders inspired by Karp's glowing descriptions of what's in season in Morgan Hill. Karp says three quarters of the fruit in the van is already sold upon arrival to Southern California chefs. Whatever's left sells out by noon.
What doesn't head to Santa Monica ends up at local Michelin-starred restaurants like Manresa in Los Gatos and Baumé in Palo Alto, or local specialty stories like CJ Olson’s in Sunnyvale. Baldor in New York and The Orchard in Brooklyn pay Mariani to fly fruit all the way to the East Coast. The quality of Mariani's fruit is no secret.
I ask Mariani if he wishes the post World War II tech boom happened in the Central Valley -- if he thinks it's a shame a region with the perfect climate for growing fruit is paved over now with office buildings and condo complexes.
"It is what it is," he says. "I can't say, 'I wish.' It happened, this inexorable march through the countryside." He adds that being one of very few fruit farmers left in the Santa Clara Valley means he can specialize in the kinds of fruit that command higher prices, the kinds of fruit that gets him excited. "You want to get up every day because something else is ripening," he says.
Developing fruit for the future
Mariani can also play a part in the development of new varieties with the California Rare Fruit Growers, an amateur society of people passionate about fruit. “We started doing some hybridizations. They’re all developed for taste.”
Unlike, say, the folks at the National Clonal Germplasm Repository near Davis, Mariani and his friends can put flavor ahead of a myriad of other priorities: appearance, size, firmness, color, shelf life, and disease resistance.
"We developed a red-fleshed nectarine. The red flesh gives it kind of a tart raspberry flavor. Coupled with the fact that it has high sugar content -- it's an outstanding variety," he says, adding that the chefs in Santa Monica love to play with his experiments in the kitchen.
On an initial foray south, the red nectarines sold out. "We had none left except for a little box of seconds -- deformed and and pockmarked and all that." A chef desperate to have them offered $50. "For that little box!"
While Mariani insists he doesn't want his operation to grow too big, it is expanding -- ironically, onto land owned by the urban sprawlers who've surrounded his orchard in what used to be farm country in Morgan Hill.
Mariani leases from them, plants orchards, and gives them a cut of the fruit. Some get curious about what it takes to become farmers themselves, but when they learn it can cost tens of thousands of dollars per acre to do what he does, they decide they're satisfied with eating the fruit he grows on their land.