What “new” food will be the darling of the food consuming community this week? In this media-frenzied society, people and things need “press” in order to fly. Not that I’m discounting the power of the press for the good of the cause – a single story or even a factoid in the Wednesday food section can send a farmer’s sales soaring at the market that very day. We have even seen new customers rushing into the market, newspaper in hand, all the way from the San Fernando Valley looking for something they just read about. What I am talking about is the phenomenon that occurs when a venerable old fruit, for example, suddenly finds itself at the center of a nexus of science, good flavor and availability, and becomes the hot new thing to buy and consume.
As an example, consider blueberries. This hardy little fruit is well-known in the east, where it has been a cultivated staple for generations. I remember blueberry pie as one of my all-time childhood favorite treats. We had a few huckleberry bushes – a small relative of the blueberry – back in Ohio and we loved spending our time picking the berries and making little tarts out of what we didn’t eat on the spot. Lately the scientific and health communities have discovered the benefits of eating blueberries and California growers are planting them like mad. The UC system has contracted with numerous small farmers to test-plant hundreds of varieties of blueberries to find out which ones will do well in a warm, dry California climate.
Blueberries are a “high chill” plant, which means that they need a certain number of hours each winter at cold temperatures in order to trigger the genetic signal to produce fruit. But for years plant breeders have been able to trick plants either through genetic modification or refrigeration to “think” they are wintering and produce fruit on a commercial timeline. The problem is that the fruit may be lacking in factors such as flavor and plant longevity, and the fruit may vary in quality from year to year. This is why the growing trials are so extensive and repeated for several cycles.
Blueberries have been found to contain the highest amounts of anti-oxidents of any edible plant. Their blue color indicates the presence of cyanin – a powerful anti-oxidant that counteracts the harmful effects of the by-products of over-processed foods, called free radicals, that cause damage to organs and the circulatory system. Food and nutrition specialists urge consumers to eat a “rainbow of colors” of fruits and vegetables every day – orange carrots, red tomatoes, green spinach, yellow squash, and blue berries. Lucky for us consumers, farmers have been planting more blueberries for years now, and they are finally arriving at farmers’ markets in substantial quantities.
One such farmer is Jennifer Lennet, who with her husband Chuck grows two acres of thirty varieties of organic blueberries in San Luis Obispo County, just south and east of the Hearst castle. Jennifer’s farm gets just enough of the coastal influence to have relatively moderate temperatures and cloud cover during winter months. She and Chuck grow “southern high bush low chill” blueberries that have been bred for warmer climates. The problem with the big berry plantings in the San Joaquin Valley near Fresno is that the heat in that area dries out the leaves on the plants, no matter how much water they receive, and the berries cook on the vines. Commercial growers will pick the berries before they drop and store them, waiting for the price to rise, or they will sell them cheap to the “big box” stores where they will retail for about $10 per flat. Other growers experiment with a conventional dormant spray called “Dormex” which puts the plants to sleep over the winter so they will begin producing fruit about two weeks before anyone else — all in an attempt to get a jump on the market. Prematurely harvested or sleepy berries lack the flavor of true vine-ripened fruit, and while the health benefits may linger, the quality certainly doesn’t.
Most of the blueberries at the farmers’ markets are grown in San Luis Obispo county, although a new grower from San Diego County has been doing well at the Saturday organic market. All blueberries grown in California must be carefully tended. Jennifer Lennet says she treats her blueberries like rose bushes. She prunes them radically each year after harvest to encourage new growth, and keeps the middle of the plant open to receive the sun and to prevent rust. Her husband Chuck doesn’t like to cut them back so hard, so he and Jennifer have a friendly competition going as to whose pruning job works better. (See Jennifer for details.) Eastern blueberry plants have an average life of forty years, but California blueberries only live for about seven years. Lacking a true winter, the berry bushes tend to overproduce and then just burn out.
Right now Jennifer and Chuck are growing some test varieties for the UC system. On any given day at the market, a six-ounce basket of berries will contain about half a dozen or more different kinds of blueberries. Some of the best of the new varieties are the Jewel, the Millenium and the Star. A nice berry called South Moon has developed sudden oak syndrome, the mysterious bacteria-like infection that is ravaging the coastal oaks. California-grown blueberries, like a stranger in a strange land, are finding their way to maturity and flavor under the watchful eyes of farmers. There is an abundance of healthful varieties to try, with the extra value of vine-ripened flavor.