Avocados are all the rage these days.
My sons don’t seem to understand their important role when it comes to supplying avocados to the family.
Our older lad, who has a house in Los Angeles, has a large back yard filled with successful fruit trees — limes, lemons, grapefruit and two large guava trees. For six months, I pressured him to rip out a guava tree and replace it with a Hass avocado. No dice. The guavas are hugely popular with his fiancée’s family.
Then there’s the other lad, who once rented a cool little house by the ocean in Solana Beach. The yard had not one but two well-established avocado trees. And he moved. So much for that.
I can’t grow them here — Davis is too far north, with the wrong climate for Hass avocados, which are far and away the best variety. Growers in the Carlsbad area down south grow acres upon acres of avocados in their ideal environment. It’s where Sheri Williamson and Margaret Crane, partners in Williamson Farms, grow the avocados they sell at the Davis Farmers Market. The two women sell their avocados at other farmers markets in Sacramento and the Bay Area as well. California Hass avocados have a long season that should end toward the back of October.
But Sheri Williamson and Margaret Crane remember when it wasn’t that way, at least not at the Davis Farmers Market.
“We hardly sold any when we first started,” they recalled recently over coffee at Philz.
That was the late ’90s. Margaret remembers the common refrain that she overheard as people walked by and whispered to each other: “Don’t buy these, they’re fattening.”
Sheri and Margaret are still selling at the Davis market. In fact, depending on the season, their Williamson Farms has a presence at between four and 15 markets around Northern California each week. Sheri and Margaret now own 20 acres of groves in San Diego County in which they’ve invested $80,000 during the past five years. One hundred acres would be better, but there are challenges to get to that scale.
What changed? There was a particular moment in time. It was “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” when she and Doctor Oz showered the avocado with praise. And like the famous “60 Minutes” segment long ago about the anti-aging effect of resveratrol in red wine, people listened and began opening their wallets. Sheri and Margaret have customers keen on fitness who will buy 20 for the week, and stores display mountains of them.
Sheri and Margaret live in the countryside outside Davis. Their avocados, however, come from San Diego County, where Sheri grew up on Williamson Farms, the family operation. Avocados were grown there. And a friend of the family, Randy Shoup, a packer for the family’s harvest, provided support. Today he is their grove manager.
The couple’s story goes back to college days. Sheri studied international relations at UCD. Margaret went to Chico State with intentions of becoming a social worker. They met, and life took them in another direction, as they opened a stand in the very early days of the Davis Farmers Market, selling strawberries before they later brought avocados to town.
Avocado time in California
The California market season for avocados begins this month and lasts for perhaps 40 weeks. All those 99-cent avocados we’re seeing in the supermarkets? Those are from Chile and Mexico. They’ll continue to be imported well into the spring, when their harvest seasons end.
Sheri and Margaret now own 20 acres of groves at Carlsbad in which they’ve invested $80,000 during the past five years. One hundred acres would be better, but there are challenges to get to that scale.
“Imported avocados will always be cheaper,” said Sheri.
It’s a matter of scale and labor costs, just as it is with California asparagus, for instance. Fortunately, the whole “eat local” movement has brought a growing number of customers into the fold. They want to know whom they’re buying from. They want to support local farmers. And usually they’re rewarded with a superior product, due to less handling and transport, and more meticulous growing standards.
Farmers can pick and sell tomatoes, asparagus and strawberries whenever they want, but not so with California avocados. To maintain a high standard in the crop, a California Department of Food and Agriculture inspector certifies that a crop is ready for harvest, with the requisite oil and overall quality. In early January, an inspector gave a go-ahead permit for the 60-count avocados (a size term) that Williamson Ranch sells.
There’s a famous scene in the movie “Moonstruck” where actress Olympia Dukakis puts down an aging, flirty college professor. “What you don’t know about women is a lot,” she tells him, before walking off.
What we don’t know about avocados is a lot. But Sheri and Margaret laid it all out.
How best to tell if an avocado is ripe? I used to think, and have written, that one should press the tip of the fruit for an answer. Not so. The rest of the avocado may not be ripe.
Put an avocado in the palm of your hand. With all your fingers and your palm, sensing gently, determine the amount of give in the fruit and assess whether it’s scarred or has bruises. Pressing with a finger leaves a brown bruise inside.
Unlike peaches, apples and pears, avocados do not ripen on the tree. Avocados need to sit after picking. When the temperatures are chilly and the fruit is low on oils early in the harvest season, it can take weeks to ripen. During warm months late in the season, they can ripen a week after picking.
Best avocados you can buy
if you’re a gourmet, come to market from California growers in September and October. Flavor and natural oils are at their peak. There’s often a golden hue inside. And if you’re really keen on flavor, Sheri and Margaret tout the Reed avocado, which they sell from August through October. It’s very round with a shiny green skin.
The avocados for sale now, in early winter, have a light green color, little oil, and they can even seem a tad watery. Yet they do have a good taste and consistency, especially for the guacamole that prevails on Super Bowl Sunday, which is to avocados what Valentine’s Day is to roses.
The industry is recommending that we wash avocados just like other fruit. If an avocado becomes ripe, put it in the fridge to extend its life a little. Some fruit, like bananas and tomatoes, ripen more quickly in a paper bag. With avocados, bagging makes little difference, says Sheri. Warmth is what hastens ripening. In our house, we have a bowl by a kitchen window that gets a lot of light, even some afternoon sun, so it’s a perfect spot.
As I often do during these interviews, I asked if there was anything I didn’t ask about that I should have, or is there a final thought. They surprised me.
“Tell the public, ‘Don’t treat us like we’re selling a bad product. Sometimes we can’t tell.’”
The truth is, beneath that thick, pebbly skin there can be secrets. Just this past week my wife, Diane, told me to stop buying avocados at a certain store. I’d bought three, for 99 cents each. All were discolored inside and went in the compost. To tell the truth, we’ve had occasional bad ones from every supermarket in town over the years.
Because they’re selling face-to-face with regular customers, Margaret and Sheri get around that problem by offering a guarantee. If you arrive home and find you’ve bought a bad one, tell them next week and they’ll give you another.
Some recipes for you
This past weekend we were invited to our friends’ house on the coast. Our contribution was the Sunday brunch. We walked in with a box of key fixings for avocado toast: a hearty bread, lots of avocados for mashing, a lime and olive oil for drizzling.
After that, people go in all directions to suit their tastes. Often there’s an egg on top, pickled onions, sprouts, or herbs. Consider checking the offerings at the Zumapoke market stand, which specializes in avocado toast.
We prepared the following, which won five stars from our hosts.
Lightly toast thin slices of hearty bread. Then rub the bread with a raw clove of garlic, if you’re a fan. Also drizzle with olive oil.
Mash avocados in a bowl, perhaps adding salt and lime juice. Smear the toast with mashed avocado. Then top it with a spoonful of burrata (an Italian soft cheese sold in small containers in most supermarkets). Next add two specialty ingredients from the EastWest stand at the Farmers market — Bolani cilantro pesto and sweet jalapeno, sold in small plastic containers.
Some other avocado-involved recipes…..
Avocado and tomato salad
Arrange slices of tomato and crescents of sliced avocado atop a small bed of arugula, mizuna or other piquant green. Drizzle with the following vinaigrette. Naturally, you might want a bit of protein, and a bit of sliced turkey from the deli department would be at home here. Canned sardines in water also work well, if you’re a sardine lover.
Citrus-Chili Vinaigrette from Greens
2 tablespoons very good orange juice
1 tablespoon lime juice (fresh)
1 jalapeno chili, seeded and coarsely chopped
1/4 tablespoon light olive oil*
1/4 teaspoon salt
Combine half the chili with the other ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Test for piquancy that suits you, and blend in more of the jalapeno as needed. This makes a third of a cup.
*Light olive oil is a product from supermarket shelves. It has little flavor, which is the point. Some accomplished chefs also prefer it for sautéing. In its stead, use a local extra virgin olive with a light flavor. Avoid a powerful tasting olive oil that overwhelms the subtlety of the other ingredients.
This is a combination of two Field to Fork columns by Northern California chef/owner Dan Kennedy and originally published in the Davis Enterprise.and used by permission.