Standing over a bounty of an unlikely Ventura County-grown harvest, Braden Jones coaxes the browsing farmers' market shoppers to stop long enough to consider his product. No large selection of green vegetables or sugary fruits here, just a load of armor-shelled nuts that you're more apt to see while visiting the Hawaiian Islands.
"People hear horror stories about how hard they are to crack," the 17-year-old Buena High School student said recently. "But it's all in the tool you use." Twice weekly, Braden offers his buttery flavored macadamia nuts at local produce bazaars, his primary mission is to demonstrate to would-be customers that there's nothing to fear.
The common hand-held nutcracker won't do, Braden said, but his pair of channel lock pliers and a purposeful grip work just fine. "People get intimidated--and some just walk away--but they're not that bad to crack," he said.
What the tall teen-ager offers is a less expensive option to one of the world's costliest nuts. Averaging about $15 a pound if purchased shelled, you can procure some of his still in-the-shell macadamias for much less.
"I sell a 1 1/4-pound bag for $3," he said. The nuts are raised on his family's one-acre Santa Paula orchard.
"When we first moved here, there were avocado trees on the land that were dying from root rot. Those had to be bulldozed about 14 years ago."
Enter the macadamia trees--chosen as a replacement because they are not affected by root rot. Also enter Jones Brothers Orchards. While brother Travis is busy at college in Santa Barbara, it's up to the younger sibling to oversee the business, including weekly trips to the Saturday markets in Thousand Oaks and Ventura.
Could the switch from avocados to macadamia nuts be part of a trend in Ventura County?
Jones Brothers Orchards' foray into the nut biz isn't dissimilar to that of Don Fox of Camarillo. "Six years ago I planted avocados and just couldn't get them going," he said. "I had problems with freezing and with rodents eating them."
"I decided to plant a macadamia tree in my back yard (in 1986) for the heck of it. It did so well I planted 40 3-year-old trees in 1988 here in the Santa Rosa Valley.
"I'm so happy with them I went out and bought $5,000 worth of equipment," Fox said. "I sort, husk, crack, dry, roast and package all my own nuts." So far, Fox markets his macadamias to small shops in the Camarillo area or they can be ordered directly through him. A six-ounce package of shelled nuts runs about $4, he said.
Fox would like to see greater macadamia production in Ventura County.
"There's this big mystique that Hawaii is the only place where they'll grow, but that's not true. It's been a fantastic crop for me," he said. He'll enjoy his largest harvest this year."
Fox said he knows of seven growers growing small crops in Ventura County.
"I think it's catching on. I know of two other growers contemplating whether to get into the business," he said.
While Fox's macadamia variety must be picked from the tree, Braden's are gathered once they have fallen from their leather husks to the ground. Both types grow on ornamental evergreen trees, featuring clusters of nuts on branches that sprout holly-like foliage.
Indigenous to Australia, the macadamia tree began its rise to "King of the Nut" status once Hawaiian commercial propagation began in the early 1920s, according to Somis Nut House proprietor Steve Resnik. "Tourism in Hawaii is a big reason for its rising popularity," Resnik said. "People fall in love with them and come back here wanting to buy more."
Resnik said increased production worldwide is creating new competition and driving down the price of the once exclusive and pricey nut. With more sources and bulk purchases, Resnik is able to offer his shelled macadamia nuts for a better price at his store, which offers a vast variety of nuts, dried fruits and candies.
"It is \o7 the\f7 deluxe nut," Resnik said. Usually roasted and salted, the nut is becoming more popular with baking hobbyists, Resnik said, so he also offers raw macadamias. "They're great, not just for cookies, but for more fancy recipes such as Macadamia Nut Cake."
"They can be crumbled to top any number of desserts, pies, ice cream, salads, you name it," Fox said.
He suggested grinding the nuts in a blender, adding the nut flour to cookie and cake mixes for a distinct embellishment.
For something unique: "Add the powder to your coffee grounds when brewing," he said.
Macadamia nuts are perishable and should be stored in the fridge once out of the shell.
SERVING SUGGESTION / MACADAMIA CREAM PIE
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup chopped macadamia nuts
dash of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 eggs, separated
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 (8-inch) baked pastry shell
1 1/3 cups milk
Combine one cup milk, 1/4 cup sugar, 1/4 cup nuts, salt and vanilla in top of double boiler. Place over boiling water and scald.
Combine remaining 1/3 cup milk, egg yolks and cornstarch and add to hot milk mixture. Cook, stirring, until thickened. Remove from heat and cool slightly. Beat egg whites with remaining 1/2 cup sugar until stiff. Carefully fold into milk mixture and turn into pastry shell. When cool, top with whipped cream and sprinkle with additional chopped nuts. Makes six servings.
Looking for a less pricey macadamia nut?
* Don Fox offers locally grown macadamias at 987-5445. He will package any requested amount. Fox offers dry roasted whole, halves or bits. Also available at Postal Expressions, 79 Daily Drive, Camarillo.
* Somis Nut House, 4475 Los Angeles Ave., offers roasted macadamias or raw whole, halves or bits. Call 482-1211.
* Braden Jones offers unshelled locally grown macadamia nuts at the Thousand Oaks (Thursdays) and Ventura (Saturdays) farmers' markets.