Last Friday I found myself headed for two orchards located in the San Joaquin Valley. The tour was sponsored by our beloved produce vendor Greenleaf and was organized by CUESA as part of their mission to cultivate a sustainable food system. I love learning about sustainable agriculture and was excited to hear about it directly from two farm owner's lips.
Our first stop was Bella Viva Farms, a family owned orchard that specialized in stone fruits, namely nectarines, peaches, and cherries.
The name is derived from the two daughters of Victor Martino, Belle and Vivian (pictured below), and means beautiful long life in Italian.
Victor started our tour talking about the different varieties of stone fruit that they grow on the orchard. As we walked between the rows of stone fruit trees, he pointed out the different varieties and let us pick or eat anything we could carry with two hands.
As we tasted our way through the orchard, Victor talked about some of their farming practices. I learned they prune their trees twice during the growing season in order to concentrate the flavor in the remaining fruit. I also learned that the largest pests they encounter on the orchard are gophers. These cherry-root loving rodents are kept in check naturally by installing strategically-placed owl houses around the orchard.
Victor also told us about a certain bug that loves to suck the nutrients out of the leaves of the fruit trees. To keep this bug a bay they found the best repellent was to spray garlic oil on the leaves. Victor imagined that the whole vampire-garlic stories were started because of the thirsty little suckers.
Next, he led us to the cherry-drying section of the orchard. There they separated their cherries into two different processing methods, one using sulfur dioxide (SO2) to inhibit bacterial growth and prevents discoloration, and one without. The cherries with the SO2 first turn yellow, but as they dry in the sun turn red again. I bought one bag of each of the dried cherries and was surprised at difference in taste and color. The cherries with the SO2 were slightly tart and maroon colored while the cherries without the SO2 were rich with sweetness and colored a deep sangria red.
Victor told us they preferred to sell direct to the consumer via farmers markets and their store front, and that it took 7 lbs of fresh cherries to equal a single lb of dried cherries. He then led us over to the processing are where a series of machines removed the stems and pits before conveying them onto a sorting belt. Along with the pits and stems, the small cherries that aren't up to snuff get composted or are used as cattle feed.
After the tour CUESA's resident chef prepared us a trio of salads for lunch. Bella Viva also graciously donated bunches of fresh cherries and we enjoyed both beneath the shade of the trees.
Once we had our fill of lunch, we boarded the bus and made a quick stop at the Bella Viva store front, which was basically a big fruit stand. There we got to taste every type of dried stone fruit that they produced including both white and yellow nectarines and peaches. I bought a couple of bags of cherries and one of dried peaches. I can't wait to make something with them! (Suggestions?)
Our next stop was the Candycot farm where the owner John Driver told us they'd adapted a central Asian variety of apricots for the Californian climate.
The two we got to try were given the Russian names, Anya and Ulya. John said they'd measured the sugar content in their apricots and found them to be twice as sweet as the typical California apricots, hence the name Candycot. He led us through his orchard and instructed us to look for fruit without any green. Fruit that had light brown spots guaranteed a super sweet bite. And of course if you found one with a bite mark (from a bug), you could bet money that it had located the best of the crop.
To reach the maximum amount of sunlight, the trees had been masterfully arranged on rows of V-shaped trellises, with the limbs reaching toward the sky away from each other. The way each branch was tamed into submission kind of reminded me of a vineyard. I stayed close to our Greenleaf rep Dennis, since his height gave him an advantage of plucking the apricots in the upper-reaches of the trees. Periodically he'd toss me one and I'd hold the still-warm-from-the-sun fruit in my hand before popping it in my mouth. True to their name, the apricots had a syrupy candy-like sweetness that would burst forth with each bite.
Sticky fingered, we continued the tour in the shade of the orchard trees listening eagerly to John talk about the different methods of protecting and harvesting their crop. At one farm they used a chemical, but non-toxic spray as a pest control. At the organic farm, they had to use an organic spray that was considered toxic and had to use it two to three times as much. I was saddened to hear in the end they lost about half of their orchard to pests anyway and decided it just wasn't profitable for them to maintain an organic orchard.
After the tour, John allowed us to taste typical California apricots from a single tree on the property. I found the California apricots to be meatier and almost bland in comparison. The Candicots definitely seemed more complex in flavor and had an intense sweetness packed within the smaller fruit.
We washed the apricot
juice syrup from our fingers, and boarded the bus for our trip home. On the way back I stared dreamily at some of the nectarines, apricots, and dried cherries that I'd collected throughout the day wondering what to make with them. If you have any ideas, please leave them in the comments. ;)
A few hours later we neared San Francisco and I was greeted with this view.
After a fun day on the orchards, it was good to be home.
For more information on CUESA's farm tours, check out their event calendar.