What's greenish-brown, furry and about the size of a large chicken egg? Hint: The flavor has been compared to a mixture of strawberry and banana and it is commonly found in fresh-fruit salads or used as an emerald garnish to any number of desserts and entrees.
That's right, Kiwi fruit--that exotic produce introduced with a grand marketing scheme to Californians back in the early '70s.
After trying to ride the Kiwi-mania wave and cash in on the fruit's initial success, Ventura County agri-entrepreneurs aren't too keen on Kiwi anymore.
"Growers have learned it's just not a viable crop for the county," said Larry Rose, sales manager for Brokaw Nursery in Saticoy. The nursery raises three acres of Kiwi fruit mainly for propagation in Upper Ojai Valley.
"The Kiwi raised here doesn't compete well because the climate is just too moderate.
"Total production peaked in the late '70s at around 100 acres," he said, "but I doubt if there are more than 25 acres now."
Rose explained that optimum growing conditions require frigid temperatures that cast the Kiwi vines into a dormant state during the winter.
Although there are pockets in the county where temperatures drop low enough--namely Wheeler Canyon and the Ojai Valley--the Kiwi fruit raised is not able to compete with growers elsewhere, including those from the Sacramento Valley.
The Goliath of the Kiwi market is New Zealand; however, there are windows of opportunity for other producers while Goliath's back is turned.
"The object is to hold the fruit so you can take advantage of the best market," Rose said.
To do this, California growers will hold their harvest in cold storage--at times for up to six months--until New Zealand growers are finished saturating the market with their high-quality fruit.
"At that point, California growers, and elsewhere, take their fruit out of storage and bring it to market," Rose said.
The month of October is generally harvest time for California growers and the fruit will then be held as late as May or June to be sold, he said.
"You can see it's very expensive to grow Kiwi, all things considered."
To hold in storage, is the fruit picked unripe?
"The fruit is hard but mature; it's picked with a sugar content around 7%. And as it ripens, it softens and the sugar percentage rises," Rose said.
Thanks to grower Jerry Oviat, locally grown Kiwi fruit is available--and inexpensive. Oviat sells his harvest at the Ventura Farmers Market. He grows about 1 1/2 acres of Kiwi vines in the Upper Ojai Valley. His asking price is 10 Kiwis for $1. The Ventura Farmers Market is 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesdays in the Montgomery Ward parking lot at Mills Road and Main Street, and 8:30 a.m. to noon Saturdays on the corner of Santa Clara and Figueroa streets.
Here's a newfangled serving suggestion apart from the usual spooning, peeling and slicing: "Eat it whole--peel and all," Rose said. "The Kiwi Commission is trying to market the fruit more readily edible; it's another of their grand marketing schemes."
So how is it whole?
"I had to try it to believe it," said Rose. "What seems like a bristling skin actually breaks down in your mouth. Not bad."
SERVING SUGGESTION: KIWI CHUTNEY
1 cup brown sugar, packed
1 cup chopped onions
1/2 cup cider vinegar
2 tablespoons chopped crystallized ginger
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon mustard seeds, lightly crushed
3 kiwis, peeled and chopped
1 cup chopped peaches or nectarines
1/4 cup blanched slivered almonds, toasted
Combine sugar, onions, vinegar, ginger, garlic and mustard seeds in heavy saucepan. Bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir kiwis and peaches into saucepan and boil for five minutes. Remove from heat and stir in almonds. Pour chutney into sterilized jars and seal. Makes 2 cups.
* Ventura Mushrooms--Offers mushrooms year-round the same day they are harvested. This week, they're selling for about $2 a pound. 4440 Olivas Park Road, Ventura. Call 642-3253, Ext. 24.
* Rancho Arnaz--Freshly squeezed apple juice and cider is available. Also, pistachio and cashew nuts are sold year-round. Call 649-2776. 95 N. Ventura Ave., Ventura.
* Otani Izzy Fish Market--This week, watch for a fresh catch of red snapper and sea bass. 610 South A St., Oxnard. Call 483-6519.