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Short Harvest : Heat brings both sweetness and decay to the exotic, fragile fruit, which must be picked and consumed quickly.


As fresh fig fanciers know all too well, the harvest season is fleeting.

Unable to be picked until the heat of late summer brings out its sweetness, the fragile fig, once harvested, must be consumed quickly or they will decay. Because of its short shelf-life all but a scant few markets do not attempt to carry this exotic tree-grown fruit.

So where can you go to buy fresh figs?

Thanks to a few heavily producing trees thriving in the back yards of area growers, you can have your fill at the farmers' market. According to Karen Wetzel, manager of the Ventura County Certified Farmers' Market, fig lovers should head to a local market, pronto.

"Right now we have a nice selection of a few different varieties," Wetzel said. Currently about four growers are bringing in figs to the Thousand Oaks market (Thursdays) and both Ventura markets (Wednesdays and Saturdays).

Get 'em while the getting is good. "They'll only be around for just a couple more weeks," Wetzel said.

Fillmore grower Jan Finfrock sells the fruit of her two trees at Ventura's Wednesday market and she will soon have them at the Ojai installment. "My trees are just loaded this year," she said, "and the figs are huge." Not only do you need to make it to the market soon, but go early. "I always sell out in about an hour," Finfrock said.

And now we pose the obvious question: How many fresh figs does Jan Finfrock offer for one dollar? Four. "That's for the big ones," she said. "The smaller ones are eight for $1."

The fledgling Ojai Certified Farmers' Market has changed its hours of operation in part to escape from the sizzling summer sun. Located on a vacant lot at 236 W. Ojai Ave., the market will now operate 4 to 7 p.m. Fridays (instead of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays).

"It was getting so hot in Ojai at that time," market manager Cynthia Korman said. "The veggies were melting." Korman is also hoping to attract more growers with the new time slot. About 12 to 15 growers participate each week, she said.

"We'll probably adjust the hours again when it starts to get dark earlier and becomes cooler," she said. If you'd like to sell your fruit, vegetables and other personally grown items at the Ojai market--pending proper certification--call Korman at 646-4444.

Petoseed Company is trying to put a colorful twist on an old standard--watermelon. The Saticoy-based company has been working on a yellow seedless hybrid in hopes of creating a niche in the lucrative melon market.

The company contracted with Underwood Ranches in Somis to grow the melon, and some of the fruits of Petoseed's genetics-altering labor are now available.

"We have contracted with Petoseed to test market the melon in Southern California," said Craig Underwood, co-owner of Underwood Ranches. "We're the only ones growing it."

Though you might see other yellow watermelon types at your local grocer, Underwood said, this is the first seedless yellow variety to hit the market. The melons are now available at the Underwood Ranches produce stand (5696 Los Angeles Ave., Somis) and are being marketed to the Hughes and Lucky chains.

"It's just starting to be marketed so it's hard to tell how it will go over," Underwood said. "But based on what we've seen at our produce stand we expect it to do well. The acceptance there has been great. People were saying they liked them better because they are sweeter."

The new roundish hybrid is similar in size to a basketball--usually somewhat smaller--and is going for about 29 cents a pound at the stand. They won't be around much longer, though, Underwood said. "This year they should run until the end of August, possibly the first or second week of September."

Given Ventura County's numerous outlets for authentic Mexican food, procuring a tasty tamale shouldn't be a problem. But how about some historical background to go along with that order? That's not so easy to find.

Come Saturday, however, The Guadalapana Society of Mission San Buenaventura and local historian Richard Senate will probably provide all you ever wanted to know about the humble tamale. It's a tamale festival of sorts happening 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m at the Ortega Adobe (215 W. Main St.) in Ventura.

While Guadalapana Society members give preparation demonstrations, Senate will chronicle the tamale's rather impressive past--which includes being the food of choice for the nobility of the Aztec Empire, said Senate.

"It's a fitting and proper way to focus on the importance of the little-known Ortega Adobe," Senate said about the event. "Not many people know it's there." The three-room historic adobe stands as an architectural example of smaller homes built in the 1800s that once lined Ventura's Main Street. Emilio Ortega first sold his fire-roasted chilies there. His operation was the predecessor of today's lucrative Ortega Chile product line.

Festival-goers can purchase tamales to eat on site for a nominal charge, Senate said, or stock up with larger quantities to take home. Proceeds will benefit The Guadalapana Society. Live music and tours are also on tap. Admission is free. Call 658-4737.

Leeward Winery will uncork its pride and joy this weekend and celebrate the release of the 1991 Ventura County Chardonnay. Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., visitors can sample this first commercially produced Chardonnay from grapes grown in Ventura County (as well as other current releases from Leeward). Less than 100 cases of this first vintage were pressed from grapes raised from St. George's Farm located off Balcom Canyon Road, between Somis and Moorpark.

Leeward Winery is at 2784 Johnson Drive in Ventura. Call 656-5054.

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