Santa Rosa plums grown by Ken Lee in Reedley, at the Hawthorne Del Aire farmers… (David Karp / For The Times )
The Hawthorne Del Aire farmers market, which celebrates its first anniversary this Saturday, is modest in size, with a dozen certified vendors, but its organizers are earnest about serving their community. It's sponsored by the Del Aire Neighborhood Assn., and managed by Susan Hillyer, who worked as a marketing director at Safeway and Bristol Farms before shifting careers. She volunteered at the Torrance market for Mary Lou Weiss, a veteran manager who acted as a mentor. So far she's put together a good local venue, a little sleepy, with only a few dubious vendors.
PHOTOS: Peppers, plums, portabellos and more at the farmers market.
The pick of the stone fruit sellers is Ken Lee of Reedley, who has excellent Santa Rosa plums, now in prime season. The exact parent of the Santa Rosa — introduced in 1906 by Luther Burbank, the celebrated fruit breeder — is uncertain, but it seems to have derived its redness in the flesh and tartness next to the skin and pit from the Japanese Satsuma plum; larger size from the apricot plum (Prunus simonii
); and a wild, sometimes almost rank aroma from a native American plum. For many years, the Santa Rosa was the leading plum variety worldwide, but in recent decades it has faded commercially, replaced by larger, firmer and often blander fruits.
The Santa Rosa is most often encountered these days at farmers markets and in home gardens — the only places where it is common to find deep purple, fully ripe specimens, at which point they are a step away from being bags of juice. Lee, who brings them at just the right stage of maturity, also sells at Torrance on Saturday and Hollywood on Sunday. Another grower who does a good job with Santa Rosa is Pritchett Farms of Visalia, at Santa Monica Wednesday, Hermosa Beach, Torrance, Palos Verdes and Santa Clarita.
Lee also offers a so-called mango nectarine, a confusing name for a delicious fruit. (At the Hawthorne market a customer actually asked the vendor, "How do you get that hybrid, by grafting?" As anyone conversant with horticultural science knows, a hybrid of mango and nectarine would be as unlikely as crossing a moose and an aardvark.) Mango nectarine in this case is just a marketing name for Honeykist, one of the best modern low-acid yellow nectarines, with some real flavor and aroma as well as sugar; Lee also uses the "mango" name for later varieties with a similar taste profile. Like most low-acid varieties, Honeykist can and should be eaten when firmer than traditional nectarines; when fully ripe, it collapses into mush.
Ito Packing of Reedley, a commercial producer now out of business, was the first to make a splash marketing a mango nectarine, but this was an entirely different variety and style of fruit: bright golden yellow all over (with no red on the skin or near the pit), medium size, it's mango-colored, but its flavor would only evoke mango to someone with an active imagination. Scott Farms of Dinuba managed to get a few trees of this or a similar variety, and is now selling the fruit at the Mar Vista, Westchester and Santa Monica Wednesday markets. Although never prominent commercially, because when underripe they're astringent, and when fully ripe they're bruise-prone, this is a type that dates back to the nectarine's origins in Central Asia, where by some accounts the legendary "golden peaches of Samarkand" were actually nectarines.
Getting back to Hawthorne, just in time for July 4, Urostegui Farm of Redlands has seeded, red-fleshed watermelons, the traditional and tastiest kind, as well as cantaloupes and white corn.
Pa Vang of Fresno sells a wide range of sparklingly fresh vegetables, including tender Chinese eggplant, just coming into peak season; powerfully aromatic mint; and four kinds of basil: lemon, Italian, Thai, and mild-flavored purple. The Gama Farms of Arvin has the fixings for salsa, including purple tomatillos, onions, garlic and incendiary chiles de arbol.
Hawthorne Del Aire farmers market, 13500 S. Aviation Blvd., at West 135th Street, Saturdays 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Tip of the week: One of the most beloved vendors of local apricots, K.B. Hall Ranch of Ojai, is back at the Ojai and Santa Barbara markets for the next couple weeks, with superb dry-farmed Blenheims, fresh and dried. This year, perhaps because the century-old trees received ample rain over the winter, they have produced a bumper crop, says Tom Hall, son of family patriarch K.B. Hall, who just celebrated his 94th birthday on Wednesday. Tom and his wife, Laura Young, also sell their 'cots at their gorgeous orchard, at 11999 Ojai-S. Paula Road; (805) 525-5875.