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Market Watch: A better prune, but will anyone care?

October 14, 2011|By David Karp | Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Hard to handle, but tasty: Muir Beauty prunes grown by Allan Lombardi in Exeter.
Hard to handle, but tasty: Muir Beauty prunes grown by Allan Lombardi in… (David Karp )

If you came up with a better prune, would the world beat a path to your door? That's what Jim Doyle, a now-retired UC Davis fruit breeder, was hoping in 1992 when he crossed Improved French, the standard variety for prunes, with Tulare Giant, a large-fruited fresh-market European plum. He was searching for a variety that ripened earlier than Improved French, to allow producers to harvest and dry their crops more efficiently; he succeeded in this, but by chance the new variety, named Muir Beauty, was irresistibly delicious.

The fresh fruit is oval with purple-rose skin and flesh that ranges from dark gold to golden orange. The dried Muir is almost twice the size of French, with thick and meaty but tender flesh and a rich, well-balanced fruity flavor, with nutty and apricot notes. In blind taste tests of about 100 varieties and breeding selections, Muir generally ranked near the top, while French was in the middle. Interestingly, Muir is higher in sucrose than French, which has more glucose. Because sucrose tastes sweeter than glucose, Muir tastes sweeter than French, even at the same total sugar content, said Carolyn DeBuse, who helped evaluate the fruit as Doyle's successor in the prune-breeding program from 1999 to 2007.

Growers were excited about the prospects for Muir Beauty when it was introduced in 2004, but, unfortunately, over several years of testing it emerged that the new variety gummed up the works when fed through the machinery used to pit, dehydrate and rehydrate French prunes. The Muir has a thin skin, which tears, so the fruit turns to mush during processing, said Joseph Turkovich, a prune grower in Winters and chairman of the research subcommittee of the California Dried Plum Board (which changed its name from California Prune Board in 2000 "to overcome the negative perception of prunes being a laxative for the elderly," as one report put it).

"It's much more difficult to develop a new variety of dried plum than some fresh peach or nectarine," added Turkovich. "For a fresh product, if it tastes good, it's good to go; for a dried product, it's got to pass five times more hurdles, in terms of how it handles."

Muir Beauty would have required different handling practices and machinery in order to be commercialized, but Sunsweet, the cooperative that markets about half of the California prune crop, did not want the headache of a variety that needed special treatment. It stopped buying the fruit, and so, despite its superior flavor, Muir Beauty was orphaned.

It would have fallen by the wayside, like so many tasty but impractical varieties, except for one thing: It's a stud. Specifically, it's the best pollinator for Tulare Giant, the fresh market variety, which is grown on several hundred acres in California. So the fruits from several dozen acres of Muir Beauty, interspersed in Tulare Giant orchards, continued to be produced but were left to fall on the ground or were fed to cattle.

Allan Lombardi, whose family grows about 90 acres of Tulare Giant in Exeter and Porterville, fell in love with the flavor of Muir Beauty, and he was incensed when Sunsweet put the kibosh on the variety. He certainly didn't like feeding his prized fruit to the cows, so he came up with an audacious plan: He and his family cut the fruits in half, like apricots and peaches (and unlike prunes, which are usually dried whole), and sent them to the dehydrator.

The result was novel and clearly the best prune on the market, but far from a slam dunk. For one thing, since Lombardi was a fresh fruit grower, he didn't have a contract for a dehydrator and had trouble getting Muir Beauties dried during his harvest in August, when driers were swamped with French prunes. Additionally, since Muir requires labor-intensive handling, it's more expensive to produce than French prunes, and it's not clear how big the market is for a premium-priced prune.

Growers won't pay to process Muir Beauty unless they are confident there's a market, but few consumers know about the variety because there's little production. Lombardi is so passionate about Muir Beauty that he is his trying to resolve this conundrum by offering to send a free quarter-pound sample to the first 30 prune lovers who send their address to lombardi3g@gmail.com in return for providing brief feedback.

Lombardi sold much of his 500-pound Muir Beauty crop this year to a store in nearby Visalia, the Naked Nut, which offers the fruit by mail order, $4.30 for a half pound, plus shipping. Andy's Orchard also has 50 pounds of the fruit, which it sells for $8 a pound (twice the price of standard prunes).

If demand for Muir Beauty takes off, Lombardi says, he'll ramp up production next year to 10,000 pounds and set up a website to market his fruit.

"I need discriminating fruit eaters or this variety is a goner," he said.

food@latimes.com

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