Cherry season is almost over. Last week at the farmer’s market, most cherry vendors were hawking their wares with “Last week of sweet and juicy cherries”. Since we started frequenting the farmer’s market about eight or so years ago, about 90% of our vegetables and all of our fruits come from there. Living in a place that’s blessed with pleasant weather just about the entire year, the availability of particular fruits and vegetables is how I’ve marked the changing of the seasons.
In the winter months and almost till May, citrus fruits, apples and grapes are the mainstay. Along with them but only in early winter are pears and pomegranate. While I avoid the sharply tart pomegranate, Shanthala devours them, dipping them in water to make them swell so that they can be popped more easily. I love the oranges in their myriad variety from the tiny mandarins to the small clementines to the large navel oranges. The varieties of oranges here are different from the ones that I’ve been used to in India. At the start of the season and towards the end, most are too sour for me to enjoy. For some reason, I hadn’t relished apples as much till this year. The lack of good quality oranges this year made me turn to apples and I couldn’t get enough of the red, juicy and sweet varieties while I avoided the green ones. Shanthala doesn’t particularly relish the grapes here and so it doesn’t figure much on our list. However, last season we found two varieties that were sweet and not as tart.
In tandem with the abundance of life that marks summer in this country, a profusion of fruits – cherries, nectarines, peaches, apricot, fig, blueberry, raspberry, blackberry, watermelon, cantaloupe and honeydew – are what marks summer for me. Cherries – Bing, Tulare, Brooks and Rainier – among the first fruit trees to ripen (the word cherry colloquially means “new” or “first”), are among the first to hit the market. California is one of the main producers of cherry in the US along with the other Northwestern states of Oregon and Washington. In those other states, cherries are available well into July while in California, cherry season closes by July. I love cherries so much, I’m positively upset when their short season is over. Cherry is the first fruit that Maya tasted. We peel the skin off one of the larger cherries and hold them in her toothless mouth. She loves slurping them, her face smeared with cherry juice and a big smile.
Around the same time as cherries come nectarines – yellow and white -, peaches – yellow and white too – plums, apricots and their hybrid cousins such as pluat (plum + apricot). I had never tasted peaches and nectarines in India. When I first tried some purchased from the supermarket, I disliked their tart and unsweet taste. When Shanthala spied them in the market, she purchased them despite my protests. Now, I love eating them. Among the berries, we love blueberries though they’re quite expensive. Today I picked a quart for $11 !
In the middle of summer, come the cool, mouth watering melons, watermelon, cantaloupe and honeydew. Starting last year, real juicy and savory varieties became available at the Mountain View farmer’s market. I don’t recall seeing them the previous years. Shanthala’s parents were here this time last year. We would purchase three of four cantaloupes and half a watermelon along with nectarines and peaches. The melons would all be gone by the middle of the week.
Autumn is marked when persimmons begin to make their appearance. Persimmons too were new to my palate. They’re an orangish colored fruit, about the size of a tomato and firm as an apple that become soft as a tomato when ripe and possess a very unique flavor with an aftertaste like coconut. There are two varieties, the non-astringent Fuyu and the astringent Japanese persimmon. I love the Fuyu persimmons. The astringent variety are far more flavorful and even more coconuty in taste, but picking the right one and eating it when it is ripe enough to lose its astringency have caused us to mostly avoid them.
Strawberries are available year round though they’re carried by a majority in the spring and summer. Other fruits such as figs are also available in summer but not in large quantities.
Some other fruits such as bananas are not locally grown at all, it seems. I came across a single farmer in Sunnyvale Farmer’s Market selling bananas but they didn’t taste very good. The bananas in the supermarkets come mostly from South America and Mexico. Mangoes are available only in the Indian stores and they come from Mexico mostly, though of late some come all the way from India. The Mexican variety is not as juicy, flavorful and aromatic as the Indian varieties, but nostalgia causes many of us to buy them anyway.
For people coming from outside the US, the fruits and vegetables here look very appealing. They’re usually very attractive looking, possess a pleasing texture that promises abundant flavor and have a long shelf life. In short, they look perfect. It’s when they’re actually cooked that we realize that it’s almost all just an appearance. There is a lot more water in the vegetables here, those in supermarkets have travelled far and have been ripened in factories rather than in the fields and many fruits are waxed to produce a shiny, smooth appearance. I remember an Italian friend once commenting that they don’t make marinara sauce based pasta much because the tomatoes are so tasteless. I recall cooking tomato rasam once that tasted like poorly flavored hot water. when our families visited from India, they frequently complained that they had to change their cooking to suit the quality here, needing less time to cook and burning a little more easily and of course, not tasting as good as the ones they left back home. When we were in Portugal, shopping for our kitchen, I remember rejecting a whole lot of oranges saying that they looked poor and defective. Shanthala picked them all up saying, “These are the good ones. They’ll taste rich just like the ones we used to enjoy back home”.
In the fight against global warming, shopping local produce doesn’t seem to figure as prominently as an act. Organic produce has a larger mind share than shopping local produce. While the farmer’s markets at both Sunnyvale and Mountain View are quite crowded, I think the people there represent a very small minority. The produce available in the supermarkets here travel an average of 1300 miles ! They’re not fresh when they arrive and most of them are tasteless compared to what we get at the farmer’s markets. Many of them come from abroad, typically South America. In the book “Epitaph for a Peach”, the author David Mas Masumoto writes of his struggles to keep his family farm going, producing a very juicy and savory version of the peach called Sun Crest peach. He writes of the peach: “When you wash the treasure under a stream of cooling water, your fingertips instinctively search for the gushy side of the fruit. Your mouth waters in anticipation. You lean over the sink to make sure you don’t drip on yourself. Then you sink your teeth into flesh, and the juice trickles down your cheeks and dangles on your chin. This is a real bite, a primal act, a magical sensory celebration announcing that summer has arrived. … I’m told these peaches have a problem. When ripe, they turn an amber gold rather than the lipstick red that seduces the public. Every year the fruit brokers advise me to get rid of those old Sun Crests. ‘Better peaches have come along’, they assure me. ‘Peaches that are fuller in color and can last for weeks in storage’”.
For the first time, I did not enjoy good cherries this season except for what we purchased last week. It’s possible that it’s because we were frequenting Sunnyvale Farmer’s Market more often than Mountain View’s. Even nectarines and peaches were totally unsavory. “It’s like eating a vegetable”, declared Shanthala after biting into one a few weeks back. But last week, we went to the Mountain View market and struck gold with cherries and nectarines. I hope the abundance of good cherries and nectarines at the market is not a sign of local farmers caving in to the demands of the supermarket ! Because if they are, I’ll lose one very sensual way of marking the seasons.