The Skin Isn’t Great, but the Heart Is Pure Gold

New York Times
June 25, 2003

The Skin Isn't Great, but the Heart Is Pure Gold

THE avocado is an archaic anomaly. Botanically and popularly regarded as a fruit, it is typically used as a vegetable. It can hang on the tree for 16 months or more — roughly the gestation period of a rhinoceros — but ripens only after picking, when its reptilian hide belies the buttery flesh within. Indeed, scientists theorize that this extravagantly rich pulp evolved to entice megafauna like mastodons and ground sloths to swallow the fruit whole and disperse the giant seeds.

With the increase in America's Hispanic population and in the taste for Latin foods, per capita consumption of avocados has doubled in 25 years, to 2.3 pounds annually. One avocado variety, Hass, predominates, though it ranges bafflingly from sublime to insipid. Much has changed in the last decade, and choosing a top-quality fruit requires a bit of savvy, as I found on a recent tour of California's avocado belt, a 300-mile swath from San Diego north to Morro Bay that produces nearly 90 percent of the nation's crop. Here avocados are diverse and iconic, the objects of passionate study and debate among growers, experts and gardeners.

One of the people most familiar with the full range of avocado shapes, sizes, colors and flavors is Julie Frink, a piano teacher who volunteers at the University of California's orchard in Irvine, 40 miles southeast of Los Angeles. On a recent morning she walked through trees that bore 157 different varieties, exclaiming about favorites like Julia ("It tastes just like ice cream") and Sharwil ("Hands off — we eat them all ourselves").

"I'm very particular about the avocados I eat," Ms. Frink said. She showed trees of the three main subspecies of avocados: Guatemalan (typically bearing large, round fruit like Reed), Mexican and West Indian. Some of the finest and most distinctive varieties are Mexican. Long used for cold-hardy rootstock, the trees typically bear pear-shaped or oval fruit that ripen in fall. They are too delicate to ship but are much appreciated by home garden connoisseurs, with their small size; their thin, glossy, purple-black skin; and their spicy, anise-flavored pulp. The fresh and dried leaves, also anise-scented, are used to flavor barbecued meats in Mexican cooking.

Pure West Indian varieties, adapted to tropical conditions, don't do well in California, but a ripe fruit specimen from a hybrid named Collinred that Ms. Frink found on the ground was typical of that type: a large, light-green fruit with mild, sweet flesh, and much lower in oil than California varieties. Some find such avocados, which Florida produces from June to February, to be watery, but people from the Caribbean relish their lighter, more fruitlike flavor and use them in drinks and ice cream. Florida shippers, seizing every advantage, market them as "Slimcados."

In Fallbrook, the center of a leading avocado district about 30 miles southeast of Irvine, a traditional Hass grove farmed by the McDaniel Fruit Company seemed a surreal mix of gothic cathedral and jungle on a misty May morning. A thick carpet of moist leaves turned the steep hillside into a trampoline, while in the dark canopy 30 feet overhead, workers on ladders used long clipping poles to snip the oval green fruit into canvas bags. As a radio blared Mexican ballads, they filled their satchels, then descended to release a torrent of avocados into wooden field bins holding 900 pounds each.

Introduced to California in the mid-19th century, avocados were grown on only a small scale until about 1910, when agricultural explorers sent back the best varieties from Mexico and Guatemala, notably Fuerte, a green-skinned, pear-shaped fruit with excellent flavor that matured in winter. As part of a boom in new subtropical crops, nurserymen and real estate developers promoted avocados as the next big thing — "Health fruit possessing unusual Vitalizing and Rejuvenating properties," as one pamphlet put it. Lured by dreams of green gold and a bucolic life, well-to-do enthusiasts planted thousands of acres, mostly in small groves. "The avocado is rich and nutty, and so are those who grow it," one farmer observed dryly in the 1920's.

As production increased, growers established a cooperative, Calavo, to develop a market. Prices were high, 50 to 85 cents apiece, and advertisements in Vogue and The New Yorker pitched avocados as the "aristocrat of salad fruits," to be served to impress guests on special occasions. The first shipment of California avocados reached New York in 1926, though for several decades fruit from Florida and Cuba continued to dominate Eastern markets.

In the same year, a Pasadena postal carrier, Rudolph Hass (rhymes with pass), planted seedling avocado rootstock in La Habra Heights, 20 miles east of Los Angeles, and grafted the Fuerte variety onto it. On one tree, grafts failed three times, and Hass might have ripped it out, but his sons tasted the fruit from the rootstock and begged him to try it.

Hass liked it so much he named it after himself and patented it. Besides its creamy texture and nutty flavor, it had thick and pebbly but easily peeled skin that typically turned purplish black when the fruit ripened, serving both as an indication of readiness and as a mask for bruises or decay. The new variety bore more steadily than Fuerte, and hung on the tree well into summer, giving growers a long season for sales.

At first, markets did not readily accept the dark-skinned fruit. "They'd be turned down because they appeared to be spoiled," Jack Shepherd, 90, who retired as Calavo's president in 1978, said in an interview at his home in Pasadena. He started working at the cooperative in 1934.

But the Hass caught on in the 1950's, and surpassed Fuerte in volume by 1972. Over the next decade plantings more than tripled, driven by syndicators and tax shelters. This surge led to a glut and a fall in prices. Meanwhile, many novice growers faced ruin due to root rot, a fungal disease; high winds, which could knock most of the fruit to the ground; and skyrocketing water costs.

Even so, with the increase in demand, the roller coaster of Hass prices currently rides high — $2 a pound wholesale, $1.29 to $3 for a half-pound fruit at retail — explaining why the California acreage in avocados is holding steady at 58,000 despite pressure from suburban development.

Although most growers give the nod to Fuerte for flavor, the durable, productive Hass has swept aside all competing varieties. It now represents 92 percent of California's crop — a virtual monoculture that leads to fears that a new pest or disease could devastate the industry.

One omnipresent threat is avocado rustlers, who sneak into groves at night and strip the trees or drive off with a field bin. "We call it `grand theft avo,' " said Nile Peterson, a manager for Calavo. "It's a constant problem, especially when prices are high. I've heard of thieves so bold they tell the workers, `We're coming to steal these avocados, and if you don't like it we'll kill you.' "

Old-fashioned avocado groves look like overgrown forests, but growers have started shifting to closely packed smaller trees, pruned short, hoping to increase yields and decrease harvest costs. A leading advocate of this practice is Reuben Hofshi, an Israeli-born packer and researcher who dreamed 30 years ago in an Ecuadorean jungle that his life's work lay in avocados.

"Picking with ladders and poles is an absurdity that we got away with when land and labor were cheaper," he said, showing a group of Chilean growers an orchard of six-foot-tall avocado bushes, their trunks painted white to protect them from the sun.

Hass trees are not suited for such plantings because they spread naturally, so Mr. Hofshi favors Reed, an upright grower that produces green-skinned fruit the size and shape of a softball, with a shell-like rind. In its prime season, July through September, Reed offers extraordinarily rich, sweet flavor, as good as that of Hass, or even better, many growers agree.

Such green-skinned varieties, including Fuerte and Pinkerton (a long-necked late-winter fruit), are often the best choices in season, but are increasingly rare because they lack the Hass's shelf life. The most likely sources for them are farmers' markets in California and organic stores.

In New York, fruit from Florida is available in season, just occasionally at mainstream stores but quite commonly at markets catering to Caribbean and Central American customers. Florida ships several dozen varieties, each for a month to six weeks, though they are rarely identified by name at the store.

Hass, a Guatemalan-Mexican cross that is mostly Guatemalan, is available year round, but its quality varies greatly depending on the season and source.

Early fruit, harvested in December and January in California, can be low in oil, bland and grassy, and sometime shrivels without ever ripening. Midseason fruit has the best flavor and texture.

Each area peaks in quality at a different time, moving north: San Diego County from April to June and Ventura County (the second-biggest avocado district, northwest of Los Angeles) a month later. In Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties, cool sea breezes let the fruit hang in good condition well into fall.

Late in the season and after prolonged hot spells, avocados ripen very quickly and can turn pasty and rancid.

Adding to and complicating consumers' choices, imported avocados, mostly Hass from Chile and Mexico, have surged in number, now making up 36 percent of the supply, as against 13 percent a decade ago. In September 2004 a federal requirement to label produce with its country of origin will become mandatory. Chilean Hass peaks from November to January, though it suffers from the three weeks it has to spend in cold storage on its way to the United States. Avocados from Mexico, the world's largest producer, are best from December to February, when they are often cheaper and tastier than those from California.

Avocados should be ripened at room temperature, and refrigerated only when necessary to keep them from spoiling. Not all Hass turn from green to black when ripe; some early fruit remains green when soft, while in summer most turns dark on the tree, while it is still hard. For all varieties, the best indication of ripeness is a tendency to yield slightly to gentle pressure. The ideal fruit has firm but creamy flesh, yellow in the center, shading to green near the peel.

Ripening a rock-hard avocado takes time — up to two weeks in early season. So to encourage impulse purchases, markets increasingly offer preripened fruit. Large avocado packers commonly hasten ripening with ethylene, as they do for bananas.

Getting a ripe but an unbruised avocado at the store can still be tricky. Stickers or signs saying "ripe" lead consumers to pinch the fruit, which leaves little spoiled spots that are hard to detect beneath the black rind of a Hass.

Dr. Mary Lu Arpaia, a University of California postharvest specialist, demonstrated the problem at a supermarket in Santa Paula, the avocado center of Ventura County. She bought eight ripe fruit at random and sliced them open in the parking lot. Two were actually overripe, and three of the six others suffered from the "squeeze syndrome."

"The approach I'd take is to buy fruit a few days from ripe, to get them home without bruising," she said.

On the same morning Dr. Arpaia, who directs the university's avocado breeding program, visited a nearby test orchard of new varieties. She showed off the most successful recent introduction, Lamb Hass, a great-grandchild of Hass — larger, blockier and later-ripening — and a promising experimental prospect, nicknamed Gem in testing, with pulp as rich as egg custard.

The Hass dynasty might seem set to continue indefinitely, but in San Luis Obispo County, at the northern end of the avocado's range, a potential usurper looms: a large, seedless avocado, discovered by William Martony on a surfing trip to Costa Rica. He and his partners patented the prodigy as "Fruta De Oro" and are hoping for their first crop this year. The time may be ripe, since there aren't any giant ground sloths around anymore to disperse avocado seeds.


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