Getting to know locally grown
varieties of the buttery treat
Grown in Santa Cruz County: clockwise, from center, Zutano, Reed, Lamb Hass and Gwen varieties.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARGAUX GIBBONS
As a College of Ag student at Cal Poly, one of my class projects involved caring for an avocado orchard, selling the fruit, and learning to identify the more than 100 varieties of avocados grown on campus. Becoming an avocado connoisseur, I quickly honed in on my favorites. One of the perks of the project was an unlimited supply of fruit, which was great for a broke college student. I practically lived on avocados, and I can’t remember ever becoming sick of them. They were satisfying and always gave me a sense of well-being, probably due to their high vitamin B content. I’d cut them in half and toss some sea salt and Tabasco on them and smash them on toast or eat them straight out of the skin, stuff an omelet with their green goodness or put them in a smoothie—avocados sustained me for my entire time at college.
I am still lucky enough to have avocado abundance due to the 40 Bacon avocado trees and one 90-foot Mexicola tree at our home ranch in Aromas. But if I had a quarter for every time a farmers’ market customer asked me if they tasted like bacon or were infused with bacon, I could buy a new tractor! (For the record, they do not!) Educating the consumer on the less popular avocado varieties helps sell them, however, and once someone tries them, they are hooked.
The avocado (Persea americana) is in the Laurel family and is native to subtropical America where archeological digs show it has been cultivated for more than 7,000 years. Avocados were known by the Aztecs as ahuacatl, meaning testicle, in reference to their shape and supposed aphrodisiacal qualities.
Europeans discovered the buttery appeal of avocados in the 1840s, but it wasn’t until the 1900s that they were grown commercially, when in 1926 the Hass variety—a Mexican- Guatemalan crossbreed—was developed and planted in Los Angeles County.
Fast forward to today, and avocados are one of the most consumed fruits in the U.S., and every year even more avocados are eaten. In 2015 more than 4 billion avocados were purchased—double the number bought just a decade earlier—perhaps due to the debunked myth that fat is bad for you.
HEALTH AND NUTRITION
Avocados are 60-82% oil, making them one of the fattiest fruits in the world, ranking just below olives. But their fat is especially healthful and has been shown to lower the risk of heart disease by improving the HDL cholesterol level and lowering LDL and oxidative stress in the bloodstream, as well as reducing inflammation in the body. Avocados also have a decent amount of protein, 3 grams per cup (or one medium avocado), which is easy to ingest when scooping guacamole with a chip.
Delicious and full of satisfying healthy monosaturated fats, packed with potassium, vitamin E, loads of feel-good B vitamins and fiber, they are practically a perfect food. Avocados are also a perfect first food for babies and good for a child’s developing brain. An interesting fact: While avocados themselves have carotenoids, they also help increase the absorption of beta-carotene in the body, which gets converted into active vitamin A. So adding avocados to your (cooked) tomato salsa or leafy green salad with carrots will improve the carotenoid absorption by two to six times!
Avocado oil is made from the flesh of avocados and has similar health benefits as olive oil with the added plus of a higher smoke point, making it healthier for roasting or frying foods than olive oil. It does not have a strong flavor, so it is very versatile. It can even be used on the skin as a moisturizer.
The jury is still out on avocado pit meal, a newly touted health food, because the safety of ingesting it has not been studied enough yet.
VARIETIES AND GROWING
There are more than 1,000 known cultivated varieties of avocados in the world, several of them grown here in the Monterey Bay area. All avocados come from three original varieties of the species. Mexican varietals are frost hardy with plum-sized, black or purple fruit and smooth skin. Their anise-scented leaves are used in Mexican cuisine, similar to a bay leaf, and the anise-fragranced skin of the fruit can be eaten as well, providing antioxidants in the dark pigment. Mexican varieties include Fuerte, Zutano and Mexicola, which tend to ripen in the fall months. Guatemalan types bear larger fruit, with rough, bumpy skin that can be green, purple or black, and ripen in the spring or early summer. Varieties include Reed, Gwen, Pinkerton, and Hass, which tend to store very well. The third type is West Indian and has large, light green fruits with smooth skin. All cultivated avocados came from these original genetics; some varieties, however, have characteristics of multiple species.
About 90% of avocados in the U.S. are the California-grown Hass variety. Hass corners the market in the States and around the globe, due to the high fat content and thick skin—which protects fruits from bruises and allows them to be stored for long periods of time. But on the Central Coast, Hass does not perform as well as other varieties because it is very sensitive to frost. In fact, I would argue that other varieties of avocados thriving in unique microclimates and banana belts in our area are even tastier and offer a more diverse flavor profile. Master propagators Ellen Baker and Fred Menge of Epicenter Avocado Trees & Fruit in La Selva Beach agree.
Epicenter propagates 12 varieties of what Baker and Menge consider the most delicious and best varieties for year-round frost-tolerant avocado production on the Central Coast. They annually graft, grow and sell 800 of those trees using fruiting wood from their 30 mother trees. Each spring they sell 1-year-old cleft-grafted trees to the public. Cleft grafting consists of cutting a large wedge in the scion (fruiting wood) and inserting it into a 2-inch long cut in the cold-hardy, Mexican Zutano seedling rootstalk. The union is held together by a horticultural rubber band and then wrapped with Parafilm to protect the graft and keep the fruiting wood from drying out. From that point the fruiting wood is kept in a propagation house until the next season when it is dug up to be sold as a year-old tree.
Buying a grafted tree will ensure you will get fruit, unlike growing your own from a seed. It takes at least five years for an avocado grown from a seed to produce fruit, and there are no guarantees it will even produce any. If you are very lucky, you may discover your own variety, but the likelihood that it is suited to your growing conditions is a long shot.
Epicenter has its own variety, which it calls Bonny Doon, developed by taking fruiting wood from an avocado tree growing in front of the Boony Doon Tasting Room, a seedling tree that appeared to have withstood cold temperatures down to 22 degrees. is tree produced an excellent crop of round, bumpyskinned fruit, which gave indication that it was of Guatemalan heritage, but the frost resistance shows that the Bonny Doon has some Mexican genetics too, says Baker. Epicenter offers this summer-ripening, one-of-a-kind avocado variety along with the several others suited for the Monterey Bay on its website: epicenteravocados.com.
Here are Baker’s suggested varieties for growing tasty avocados year-round in the Monterey Bay area. Spring is the time to plant them, and if you decide to grow your own, see Baker and Menge’s tips in the sidebar on p. 21.
Bonny Doon — See preceding text for description.
Reed — Believed to be a seedling of the Guatemalan Nabal, the Reed originated on the property of James Reed in Carlsbad, Calif. Its fruits are big, round and prolific, with bumpy green skin and contain the highest oil content of this list. Needs no other avocado tree nearby to produce abundant fruit. Ripens in November, and turns green when ripe. Its flesh is described as smooth and delicate, with a nutty flavor. Oil increases the longer the fruit hangs on the tree. This tree will produce fruit quicker than any other variety.
Carmen— Baker’s favorite, for flavor and because it blooms twice a year—in July/August and again in March. Closely related to Hass with skin that is bumpy and green and turns black when ripe and very firm flesh.
Lamb Hass — A more frost-tolerant Hass variety due to crossing with a Gwen avocado, green and bumpy skin, black when ripe. Produces high yields of 10- to16-ounce fruits that are ready in the fall.
Ardith — Commonly grown in coastal Israel, even though it originated from the breeding program at UC Riverside. Develops 12- to 15-ounce fruits within a few years that are buttery and delicious. Green and bumpy skin, ripe when black. At a California Rare Fruit Growers avocado tasting, this variety rated the best. Frost tolerant down to at least 25 degrees.
Zutano — A smooth-skinned variety that produces fruit in late winter, early spring. Used as rootstalk for fruiting wood due to its cold hardiness, uniform seed germination and thick stems.
Bacon — One of the most frost resistant of all varieties listed, hardy to 28 degrees. Nutty and sweet, with light green creamy flesh and thin skin that is shiny green when unripe and dull green when ripe. Despite its name, does not taste like bacon.
SELECTING AND EATING
Avocados vary by season. Spring avocados contain the most water; as the season goes on and the trees are exposed to more carbon, they make fat out of it, so the longer they hang on the tree, the greater their fat content. Some of the best avocados we have eaten are those that hung on our trees so long that the seed separated from the flesh—something you can hear when you shake the avocado.
This is the closest to tree ripened you can get, even though avocados will only ripen completely once picked. To know when the avocados are ready to be harvested, we also look for what we call the “belly button”—a darkened, round indentation on the bottom of the smooth-skinned avocado varieties. Once picked, it can still take five days to two weeks for an avocado to ripen at room temperature.
To have a continual supply of ripe avocados, I like to put some in the fridge and allow a few to ripen on the counter, pulling out the refrigerated ones as we eat the others. Once cut, an avocado begins to oxidize and change color, which is never appetizing. Squeezing lemon or lime on the avocado will help somewhat, but the color will still darken as time goes on.
Avocados are most often eaten raw as a dip, on a sandwich or in a salad. But how about removing the pit and cracking an egg into the hole and baking it at 350° F until the egg is cooked for a healthy breakfast? Or making a chilled avocado and cucumber soup by adding some vegetable broth, yogurt, chopped sweet onion, lemon juice and mint? Or making a salad dressing out of the avocado by adding some roasted poblano peppers and apple cider vinegar, honey and salt? Personally, I love using avocado in a raw chocolate pie instead of using dairy—see Kari Bernardi’s raw pie recipe from the Fall 2013 issue of Edible Monterey Bay.
Jamie Collins is owner of Serendipity Farms, which grows organic row crops in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties and distributes them through a CSA, u-picks and farmers’ markets and a virtual farm stand which can be found on Serendipity’s Facebook page.
courtesy of Matt Bolton, executive chef at the C Restaurant, InterContinental The Clement Monterey.
PLANTING AND CARING FOR AVOCADO TREES
Avocado trees should be planted from the end of March through May to give them a chance to take root before the heat of summer stresses them.
Ellen Baker and Fred Menge of Epicenter Avocado Trees & Fruit in La Selva Beach suggest preparing a mound consisting of a mix of native topsoil, sand and compost that is 2 feet above the soil and 6 feet wide to be sure the tree has adequate drainage. Dig a hole 2 feet deep into the mound you prepare and plant the tree within it. Cover the mound with 4 inches of mulch, except for the water basin around the tree; that should have only a light amount. Spread 15 pounds of gypsum over the mulch and water it in. Water the tree twice a week, keeping it damp but not oversaturated, and apply composted manure several times, stopping before the end of summer. Drip irrigation is not ideal for avocados as they like a deep soak. “Extra care makes the tree happy and produce fruit faster. If you don’t do anything—no fertilizer or mulch or care—you can easily kill an avocado tree,” Baker says.
Avocados love their leaf litter to mulch their shallow roots, so be sure not to remove the debris. Pull weeds that can compete with the tree and allow fallen leaves to accumulate, adding more mulch on top or even better, raw horse manure because it stops fungal disease from spreading. Avocados are evergreen and don’t need to be pruned unless you want to keep them from growing too tall; the trees can get up to 80 feet high if not well managed.
Epicenter Avocado Trees & Fruit
LOCAL FOODS IN SEASON
MARCH, APRIL, MAY
Fruits: Apricots* • Avocados • Blackberries* • Cactus Pears* • Grapefruit** • Kumquats** • Lemons • Limes** • Mandarins** Oranges • Pomelos** • Rhubarb** • Strawberries
Vegetables: Artichokes • Arugula • Asparagus • Beets • Bok Choy • Broccoli • Broccoli Raab • Brussels Sprouts • Burdock Cabbage • Cardoons • Carrots • Cauliflower • Celeriac*** • Celery*** • Chard • Chicory • Collards • Cress • Dandelion Endive • Fava Beans and Greens • Fennel • Garlic • Horseradish • Kale • Kohlrabi • Leeks • Mushrooms • Mustard Greens Nettles • Onions • Orach • Parsnips • Peas** • Pea Shoots • Potatoes • Radishes • Rutabagas** • Shallots • Spinach • Sprouts Squash • Sunchokes • Turnips * May only ** March and April only ***April and May only
Fish: Abalone • Crab, Dungeness • Grenadier, Pacific • Halibut, California • Lingcod, Pacific • Rock Cod, aka Snapper or Rockfish • Sablefish, aka Black Cod • Salmon, King • Sanddabs, Pacific • Seabass, White • Sole (Dover and Petrale) • Spot Prawns • Squid
All fish listed are rated “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program and are found in abundance in local waters. See seafoodwatch.org for more information.
Research assistance provided by Real Good Fish and Serendipity Farms.