This week may be the best of the year for high-flavored fruit that's worth a special trip to local farmers markets, because it's almost never available elsewhere.
Start with boysenberries, whose rich, complex, sweet-tart flavor reflects their ancestry, part raspberry, part trailing blackberry. To be at their best, they must be picked dead-ripe, when they're too soft and perishable for supermarkets, and even at farmers market just a few vendors take the trouble. Look for containers in which all or most of the berries are deep purple, indicating full ripeness; less ripe berries are better for baking or making preserves. Most of the berries should be intact, not seeping juice, which will lead to rapid decay; a good container should be flat so that the berries on the bottom are not crushed.
Robert and Patricia Poole of Redlands offer perfectly picked boysens, along with even rarer, sweeter youngberries, at the Hollywood, Santa Monica Wednesday and Redlands markets. Also try Doug Powell (T&D Farm) at Beverly Hills and Hollywood, and Dan Hashiba at Torrance. The season starts earlier, in late May, and finishes earlier, in mid-June, in the San Joaquin Valley, so Murray Family Farms will offers its last boysens this weekend at Torrance, Hollywood and Santa Clarita.
Persian mulberries are even rarer and more fragile, with a powerhouse sweet-tart flavor that astounds the uninitiated. The key to choosing Persian mulberries, as with boysens, is to look for dark, intact fruit, although they naturally leak more, and there will always be some juice at the bottom of the tray, which is delicious as long as it is fresh. Dark color is not, however, a guarantee of sweetness; taste a sample, ask the vendor and get to know their quality; Persian mulberries are expensive, usually $8 or $10 a punnet, so sour batches are disappointing.
John Tenerelli of Littlerock is the Persian mulberry expert. He only picks when the berries are sweet; he sells them primarily at Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Pasadena and at Santa Monica's Wednesday market. Other top growers, some a week or two from harvest, include Alex Weiser, Juan Garcia, Jeanne Davis and the elusive, legendary Circle C.
French-bred Mara des Bois strawberries, with an alluring wild strawberry aroma, have been sold by Harry's Berries for the last year in frustratingly tiny quantities, usually snapped up by chefs. Harry's increased its Mara field to 8,000 plants, and the fruit — dead-ripe, the only way it has that magical fragrance — has just now become readily available at Santa Monica on Wednesdays and Saturdays and at Venice, Beverly Hills and Thousand Oaks. They're expensive ($6.50 a half-pint) but incomparable. Pudwill Berry Farms tends to pick its Maras less ripe, but they can still be good; they're at Pasadena, Studio City, Mar Vista, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica.
Ripe Mara des Bois berries display a range of colors, matte shades of carmine and maroon, that are not quite the same as those in conventional strawberries; the best specimens seem to have an almost preternatural glow that is hard to describe. Lighter, orange-red berries are less desirable. The best indication of top quality is that exquisite wild strawberry aroma, detectable from many feet away. In even the best batch, only some of the berries, maybe half, will have the combination of sweetness, aroma and tenderness that makes Mara so prized. Like other strawberries, Mara varies considerably in quality from week to week, as the plants pass through inscrutable cycles in which they devote more or less of their resources to vegetative needs or to the fruit.
Blenheim apricots, tender-fleshed, sweet and aromatic, the most eagerly anticipated fruit at local farmers markets, are starting to arrive. James Birch, who grows in Three Rivers, east of Visalia, says he will have Blenheims at Santa Monica and Hollywood this weekend, and at Santa Monica on Wednesday.
San Joaquin Valley Blenheims are just an appetizer because the area's brutal heat scalds this delicate variety's flesh near the stone ("pit burn"); it reaches perfection only in coastal valleys, where the cooler conditions give the fruit time to develop full flavor. Eric and Helle Todd of Forcefield Farm, from Santa Paula, will bring a few to Hollywood this weekend and more to Santa Monica on Wednesday. Their fruit can be a bit scraggly looking, with cracks ("cat scratches," in fruit parlance) at the stem end, but the flavor is incredibly intense, luscious and concentrated because it is dry farmed and baked by the stony soil.
The local king of Blenheims, Michael Cirone of San Luis Obispo, expects to be in Santa Monica starting June 19. Others worth searching out include Rancho Mexico Lindo (Louis Diaz) of Valley Center, at Beverly Hills and South Pasadena, and Rose Wisuri at Camarillo.
Get to the market early to pick unbruised fruit, and take a flat, padded box to get them home intact. Buy a range of maturities, from fully ripe to a few days off. Blenheims ripen from the inside out, so by the time they develop translucent spots on the surface, they're mush inside.
Snow Queen white nectarines at their best are the most delicious stone fruit in the world, with dense, buttery flesh, a perfect balance of sweetness and acidity, and shockingly intense aromatics.
They are, however, among the most challenging fruits to select and consume. Only a portion of the crop has that ideal balance. Many with smooth red skin are bracingly tart, probably because they grew in the shade; premium specimens have speckled, even leathery skin on at least part of the fruit, indicating that they grew in a sunny position. The best specimens have a round, filled-out shape (not flat or beaked), particularly at the stem end, and almost a rosy glow superimposed on a rich golden ground color.
Because Snow Queens bruise easily, it's difficult for growers to pick them fully ripe, especially when it's 108 degrees in the Reedley stone fruit belt, as it's supposed to be this weekend. The first picking is usually a bit on the green side; the second picking, a few days later, is at peak quality; and by the last picking, many of the riper nectaries are starting to ferment. Take a padded box to buy Snow Queens and watch them carefully so that they don't become over-mature, which can happen overnight.
Most stone fruit is a week early this year, but Snow Queen is taking its regal time to ripen. John Hurley of Dinuba will start selling a few next weekend (June 15-16) at Playa Vista, Santa Monica (Saturday at Virginia Park and downtown), Mar Vista and Beverly Hills; Snow Queens from Ron Cornelsen (Honey Crisp) and Truman Kennedy are still 10 days off.