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The Neighborhood Guava Gal

November 15, 2000|DAVID KARP

Some 250 farmers sell at the four Santa Monica farmers markets, but only one actually grows produce in Santa Monica: Nazaria Tolentino, who has a mini-jungle of 27 guava trees near the corner of Centinela and Pennsylvania avenues.

Born in 1924 on the island of Luzon in the Philippines, she came to Los Angeles in 1949 with her husband, Theodore, who was working as a cook in Westwood, and had returned to the Philippines to find a bride. In order to enjoy the sweet, fragrant guavas of her homeland, she planted a tree outside their living room, which proved more popular than she expected.

When she was working as a clerk for GTE, she recalls, "People used to stand on the fence to reach the guavas--twice we had to repair it. When it came time for me to retire, I thought, if people love guavas so much, I'll plant more."

Nazaria--called Noreem by her friends and family--started planting seeds from Hawaii and the Philippines 20 years ago. Today, a few trees grow in her yard and that of her son Stephen, who lives next door, but most of her production comes from the tangled guava thicket (guayabales in Spanish) at an apartment compound that she owns across the street. She hires teenage boys to climb the trees and pick the ripe yellow, white-fleshed fruits, and fights a running battle with the squirrels, raccoons and opossums that relish them too.

Native to the American tropics, guavas have became naturalized in many tropical parts of Asia and Africa to the extent that inhabitants consider the fruit to be indigenous to their own region. Each ethnic group has its preferences for ripeness and recipes. For fresh fruit, many Hispanics like guavas green, tart and crunchy; they also boil the fruit and use the juice to make sweetened guava paste. Asians generally like guavas ripe and sweet--though Filipinos also eat them green with salt and lemon juice, and pickle them.

A beloved Filipino specialty calls for cooking guavas with fish in a chowder-like stew. "Instead of cream we cook guavas: We mash them up, strain the seeds and cook the fish in it," says Tolentino.

Nazaria Tolentino sells at these Santa Monica farmers markets: Arizona Avenue between 2nd and 3rd streets, Wednesdays 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Pico and Cloverfield boulevards, Saturdays 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.; 2640 Main St. at Ocean Park Boulevard, Sundays 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

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