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IN SEASON

'Chokes Stay Close to Home

March 12, 1997|RUSS PARSONS

For the first time in a couple of years, you'll soon be able to find artichokes at reasonable prices. They won't be the prettiest in the world, but at least they'll be affordable.

Artichoke country, the 10-square-mile area around Castroville, just north of Monterey, is still recovering from the devastating floods that hit in the middle of March two years ago.

But the real reason for the good prices was a cold snap a couple of weeks ago that "frostbit" the 'chokes, leaving an ugly brown patching at the tips of the leaves.

"When this happens, it tends to push [sales of] artichokes all to the West Coast, where we know what frosted artichokes are all about," says Pat Hopper of Ocean Mist, which produces about 60% of California's (and therefore the rest of the country's) artichokes. "They're the ugly ducklings of the produce world."

If you're cooking the artichokes whole--boiling or microwaving or (best of all) steaming them--the brown bits will simply scrape off after cooking. If you're using only the hearts, all of those tips are cut away and discarded before cooking.

The thing is, most people--especially in other parts of the country--don't know that and they won't touch them. That just leaves more for us.

Historically, artichoke prices begin to dip right about now and stay low until early May. Wholesale prices are slightly lower than they've been at this time of year for the last couple of years but still not as low as they were before the flood.

Hopper says this year's real price drop will come around mid-April because the season has been slowed by early heavy rains.

"We were scared to death this year because we had those enormous heavy rains in January and December," she says. "It did hurt the plants, again. They were starving from having their roots flooded. That resulted in weaker plants and fewer artichokes. But the dry February really helped us out."

Hopper predicts a harvest that is about 15% below peak years, an improvement on last year, which was down 20% to 25%. That would put the harvest at about 3.5 million to 3.6 million pounds, the second-best since 1992 and the third-highest since the giant 4-million pound harvests of the late 1980s.

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