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Pippin to Pearmain : Several specialty varieties can be purchased at farmers' markets, but they're grown outside the county.


Crispy, juicy, sweet--sometimes tart--and versatile. Sound familiar? Yes, it's the apple. This flavorful fruit staple is easily the most popular of all deciduous fruits. Juiced, baked, enjoyed fresh and consumed the world over, apples are never more than a trip to the market away.

Except for a couple of nooks with cooler microclimates, Ventura County's geographic location is not considered conducive to commercial apple production. The reason: the marine and coastal climates of Southern California do not provide the winter cold that most varieties need.

That's not to say a fresh bounty of apples isn't available to Ventura County residents. Certainly your local grocer carries a few types throughout the year. But what about the unique apple varieties rarely seen in markets? Thanks to a few farmers who bring their fruit to local farmers' markets from outside the Ventura County line, specialty apples are available in good quantity.

"The apple industry has become so commercialized," grower Debbie Harvey said recently from her home in Bakersfield. To be commercially viable, she said, most apples must be able to withstand the rigors of harsh handling. The harvesting process, traveling over conveyor belts, and being shipped across the seas can take its toll. Bruises can be fatal to an apple's marketability.

"Nowadays, markets want a pleasant looking fruit," Harvey said. "They don't necessarily pay attention to what actually tastes better."

Harvey Farms, a family-operated business in Delano, grows a wide variety of apples--some of which are offered each week at the Thousand Oaks Certified Farmers' Market.

"These are the kind of apples the larger growers just don't want to mess with," she said.

Currently, Harvey is offering three varieties: a sweet crab apple, the Fuji and the red Granny Smith.

"Harvey Farms was the first to commercially ship (the red Granny Smith) in the United States," she said. "It's a pretty new item and there's very little in production."

Harvey termed the apple a "new version of an old standard." This fragrant, scarlet red apple is sweeter than its green cousin, which is common to grocery produce racks. "It's very crunchy and sweet, but also has a tart snap to it," Harvey said. Try it for baking and snacking, she suggested.

"Our sweet crab apple is an interesting one. The longer they stay in storage the better they taste," she said.

(In fact, all of Harvey Farms' apples now available have been kept in cold storage since harvesting--a common practice of all apple growers. Depending on the variety, some begin to be harvested in early September, others through the end of December.)

"You don't see too many crab apples grown for fresh consumption," Harvey said. The diminutive sweet crab apple is perfect for youngsters: "They're snack-sized for children--there's no waste. It's also to be used for juice, applesauce and jam."

Harvey Farms will be selling at the Thousand Oaks outlet through mid-March and will return mid-May with novelty nectarine and plum varieties. A much larger offering of Harvey Farms' apples will reappear in late July.

Sea Canyon apple ranch--located near Avila Beach in San Luis Obispo County--is also offering a selection of apples at Ventura's Saturday farmer's market.

The ranch grows about 30 different varieties and is currently selling four types: the small yellow-green pippin, red delicious, golden delicious and the pearmain.

According to ranch employee Mark Griffin, the pearmain is billed as the oldest English apple variety known. "The Pilgrims farmed this variety," Griffin said. "It's a great juice apple and is thought to be inferior to none for making cider."

Pie-makers will want to try the pippin, Griffin advised. "This is the one you want for cooking and baking," he said. "They stay firm when you cook them up--just excellent for pies."

Get them while they last. Sea Canyon, too, has ended its apple harvest season and their dwindling cold storage stock will be around for only a few more weeks.

Ventura County's own Rancho Arnaz in the Ojai Valley is another popular spot for a selection of apples not normally seen in grocery stores. Those include you-pick-'em varieties such as the sweet, yellowish winter banana; the red, all-purpose Winesap and the white winter pearmain.

"We make a white winter pearmain cider that is just divine," said Barb Frantz, manager of the ranch's market. Rancho Arnaz specializes in two types of apple juice--fresh squeezed and pasteurized--from their own antique water-powered press.

The Rancho Arnaz market is open year-round. For information, call 649-2776.

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