A MIDDLE-AGED woman in a straw hat is stalking the aisles. She stops, sniffing an unmistakable perfume. Surreptitiously, she snatches up one of the jewels on display. She stands back, away from the crowd, and puts a big, beautiful strawberry in her mouth. She chews slowly, closes her eyes and murmurs, "Oh, my God."
She is one of 1,300 restaurant chefs, produce wholesalers and impassioned food fans who have paid $20 a ticket to gather at the Oakland Museum and consume the best, freshest locally grown fruits, vegetables and even edible flowers at the sixth annual Tasting of Summer Produce. Alice Waters, owner of Berkeley's Chez Panisse, believes the show is the "most important food event in the country."
The Los Angeles version, A Summer Tasting of California Farms, will take place July 31 at the Wholesale Produce Market downtown. Unlike the Oakland show, the Los Angeles tasting is not open to the public, which gives it a more commercial flavor: It really is a trade show. But the produce is just as exquisite, the wine pours just as freely, and exhibitors from some of the city's trendiest restaurants serve free food. This year, City Restaurant / Border Grill again will participate, as will Sonora Cafe, Jasmine's, Malibu Adobe, Trees, Chez Melange, 1000 Wilshire, Tuscany, Stepps, Ritz Cafe, Palm Court, Columbia Bar & Grill, Bistango, Angeli, Tumbleweed and Trumps.
The Los Angeles and Oakland tastings, combined with increasing numbers of local farmers markets and a growing supply of good restaurants that demand and pay top dollar for high-quality fresh and unusual produce, are making it possible for California farmers to live off the land and harvest a respectable profit.
Sibella Kraus, a former Chez Panisse cook who is now a produce wholesaler in San Francisco, organized the original Oakland exhibit. She recognized a need among restaurant owners for fresher, more unusual produce than could be obtained from wholesalers. Coincidentally, many local growers also were looking for markets that could distribute higher-quality vegetables. The tasting provided the direct link between the two. "Quality, freshness and flavor--that's what this event is about," Kraus says.
At the Los Angeles tasting, growers will bring traditional late-summer glories: red, yellow, purple and brown peppers; red, yellow, green and pink tomatoes; blood oranges; avocados, bananas the shape of fat, stubby fingers, and beans of every size and configuration, from large striped Dragon's Tongues to -inch-thick haricot verts.
Small growers, in particular, would probably welcome more such tastings. Both north and south, growers credit these events with helping them reap real profits in an industry plagued elsewhere by uncertainty at best, disaster at worst, such as this year's devastating drought.
One particularly satisfied tasting participant is Scott Murray, who with partner Fritz Klein operates Pacific Sunrise Produce in San Marcos, near San Diego. Murray helped organize the first Southern California tasting in 1986. "The first year I better than doubled my business," he explains. "The second year, we added 100% to our customer base, and we expanded from 3 to 26 acres." Murray believes that the tastings are an important showcase for growers like himself, who aim at the lucrative specialty market.
Murray's latest offerings, which he will bring to the Los Angeles tasting, include the cape gooseberry, a small orange fruit with a tart-sweet flavor, and Malabar spinach. Looking to the future, he is planting an additional 20 varieties of bananas in his fields and hopes to eventually expand production to Mexico and the Caribbean.
"There are more than 6,000 different vegetables in the world, but the Western world has only about 200 that are popular, and most people could not name 60," he says. "Twenty years from now, these (unknown vegetables) will be a big market."
Unusual produce is becoming increasingly popular. Some restaurants and markets offer a rainbow of potatoes--purple Peruvians, yellow Finns, rose firs. There are pink and red lettuces, yellow watermelons, and gold, white and red-and-white-striped beets. The past few years have seen the blossoming of some of the most beautiful edibles of all: flowers. Pansies, nasturtiums, calendulas, tuberous begonias and roses are showing up on dinner plates as garnishes, floating in soups, or forming salads that look like Technicolor dreams. Maxine Sisson, who owns Maxi Flowers a la Carte, says she can't keep up with the demand for the flowers that she grows on two acres in Sebastopol. "It doesn't have to be a $50-a-plate dinner for someone to appreciate a flower in the soup," she says.