Cherimoyas, green-skinned, heart-shaped fruit native to the Andes, grown… (David Karp )
The Torrance farmers market has always ranked as one of the top three in the Southland, after Santa Monica Wednesday and Hollywood Sunday, and is particularly strong in winter, with an abundance of citrus and exotic fruits and vegetables. Mary Lou Weiss, the manager, is a veteran professional, and although some of the market's stands do sell commercial-grade produce, many are genuine small family farms, well worth searching out.
One of the finest and most honorable growers is Carol Harriett of Thys Ranch, from Fallbrook, who is bringing bright yellow Cocktail grapefruit with very sweet, tender, juicy flesh. This curious variety originated at UC Riverside in the 1950s as a hybrid of Frua mandarin and Siamese Sweet pummelo ("sweet" in this case meaning acidless, like sweet limes).
The result was both distinctive and delicious, and so the breeders, Robert Soost and James Cameron, sent budwood of the variety, which they called "Mandalo," to a few farmers to plant test trees. The fruit proved both very seedy and too soft to go over a commercial packing line and withstand the rigors of shipping, so the breeders never officially released the variety.
But it was appealing to home gardeners and farmers market growers, and so by the 1980s the budwood "escaped" and was used for propagating trees by nurseries. One of them named the variety "Cocktail grapefruit," although it is not a true grapefruit like Ruby or Marsh, all of which derive by mutation from a common ancestor.
The Cocktail's name suggests diminutive dimensions, but the fruits can vary greatly in size, from a typical orange to a large grapefruit. Its flavor is low in acidity and very pleasant, with primary notes of mandarin, but also hints of an odd soapy aftertaste, likely derived from its pummelo parent. The segment walls are quite bitter, because they contain naringin, like pummelos and grapefruits, and so the best way to eat it is either to juice it or -- if you have the patience -- slice it into longitudinal segments, flick away the seeds and fillet the flesh, peeling off the skins of the segments.
In the last decade or so, the variety has enjoyed success beyond what its originators envisioned, as growers in the San Joaquin Valley have planted perhaps 50 acres, much of which is harvested early while it is still relatively firm, in late fall, and shipped to Japan. Quite a few farmers market growers in Southern California have plantings, including Thys Ranch, at Torrance, and two who sell at Santa Monica Wednesday, Garcia Organic Farm and Peter Schaner (one of the original cooperators with the university, who persists in calling the variety "Mandalo").
The local season begins in late December or early January and peaks over the next few weeks, while the fruits are fully colored and sweet but still firm enough to section. The fruits hang well on the tree and are sometimes sold as late as April, but by that time they have lost some needed acidity and are so soft they squash easily.
For those who can eat only so much citrus and long for luscious soft fruit, now's the time for a cherimoya, the green-skinned, heart-shaped fruit native to the Andes. Mark Twain called it "deliciousness itself" for its creamy white, flan-like pulp, which tastes like a subtle blend of banana, vanilla, pineapple and papaya, with a touch of the granular texture of pears.
Rancho Santa Cecilia, from Carpinteria, has Booth cherimoyas, one of the richest-flavored varieties grown commercially. The Booth, identifiable because it appears to be covered with light thumbprints, originated in 1921 at the Booth Ranch in Hollywood, which, being located in a climatic "banana belt," was famed for exotic fruit long before it became synonymous with motion pictures. (There's actually a Cheremoya Avenue, using an older spelling, off Franklin Avenue.)
Cherimoyas are best picked firm and ripened off the tree, like avocados; they are ready when they give to gentle pressure. Rancho Santa Cecilia, which also sells the White and Bays varieties, markets the fruits in four price categories, according to size and shapeliness. Large, regular-shaped fruits command a premium, because they contain a higher ratio of flesh to seeds, and so are easier to eat; the flesh is so rich that a big fruit, weighing a pound or more, is too much for most people to consume by themselves, but cut fruit can keep in the refrigerator for a day or two.
Often it's difficult even for professionals to tell whether a stand really grows the produce it sells, but Elser's Country Farm, which specializes in heirloom vegetables, is obviously the real deal: Everything comes from the Elser family's backyard in Yucaipa, and in winter, when production slows down, they sell at Torrance only every other week (they'll next show up Jan. 30).
Among their current offerings are Devil's Tongue lettuce, with large, dark leaves; yellow Amarillo carrots, which are mild with a touch of spice; and Golden Sweet snow peas, rare heirlooms with yellow pods. Visiting the Elsers' stand is like having your own garden, except you don't have to work, though you do have to pay.
Torrance farmers market, Charles H. Wilson Park, 2200 Crenshaw Blvd., between Carson Street and Sepulveda Boulevard, Saturdays 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.