Andy’s Orchard: Maverick Orchardist Demystifies Heirloom Stone Fruit & Shares Tips for Selection

| July 15, 2014 | 1 Comment
  • 1 Comment
Originating in Central Asia, these CandyCots -- intensely sweet, small apricots -- from Andy's Orchard taste like honeyed marmalade. Photo: Susan Hathaway

Originating in Central Asia, these CandyCots — intensely sweet, small apricots — from Andy’s Orchard taste like honeyed marmalade. Photos: Susan Hathaway

Imagine eating a peach, nectarine or plum during this stone fruit season. Sweet flavors burst in your mouth, the heady aroma envelopes you and the exploding juices run down your arm and chin. Or not.

Too often, the fruit available today just doesn’t deliver this full-monty experience. Sold simply as “peaches” or “plums,” it’s too firm. It’s barely sweet. There’s not enough juice to run anywhere. Blame factory farming or suburbia encroaching on California’s agricultural land or just the hideous economics of making a living by growing produce. But most of us are still in search of that mythical juicy, sweet summer fruit. Can you even find it?

Drive to the southern end of the once-agriculturally-magnificent Santa Clara Valley to sleepy Morgan Hill and follow the weathered signs for Andy’s Orchard. This unassuming operation of around 50 patched-together acres is what has been called “the Château Pétrus of stone fruit.” While other orchardists dry their mediocre fruit, focus on higher-margin crops like cherries or — more likely — have sold their land to developers, tall, low-key Andy Mariani, who’s in his late 60s, is a rare artisanal grower who’s “going purely for flavor” in the fruit he grows, he explains.

Andy Mariani has the largest collection of heirloom stone fruit on the West Coast. Photo: Susan Hathaway

Andy Mariani has the largest collection of heirloom stone fruit on the West Coast.

Mariani’s 250-plus varieties of stone fruit — cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums and hybrids — represent the most extensive collection of heirloom fruit on the West Coast. Local Michelin two-stars like Manresa in Los Gatos, Baumé in Palo Alto and demanding chefs on the East Coast have Andy’s Orchard on speed dial during the summer fruit season. “Right now, my problem is having a lot more demand than supply,” he admits.

Some of the stone fruit grown at Andy’s Orchard. From top right, going clockwise: Silver Logan peach, Sierra Pink peach, Raspberry Red nectarine, two “Yuliya” CandyCots, Alameda Hemskirke apricot, two Lasgerdii Mashad apricots, Galaxy doughnut peach, Red Top peach. Middle top: Dolly yellow plum; below: two Canada White apricots. Photo: Susan Hathaway

Some of the stone fruit grown at Andy’s Orchard. From top right, going clockwise: Silver Logan peach, Sierra Pink peach, Raspberry Red nectarine, two “Yuliya” CandyCots, Alameda Hemskirke apricot, two Lasgerdii Mashad apricots, Galaxy doughnut peach, Red Top peach. Middle top: Dolly yellow plum; below: two Canada White apricots.

In the conservative farming community, Mariani is viewed as a maverick. Consider his efforts with apricots, which the public largely dismissed years ago because “they thought that apricots didn’t taste like anything,” he says. While other local orchardists simply dry pedestrian varieties, he is helping consumers rediscover this lovely orange fruit.

Andy's Orchard dries a small part of its intensely sweet CandyCot production, which makes the fruit particularly unctuous. Photo: Susan Hathaway

Andy’s Orchard dries a small part of its intensely sweet CandyCot production, which makes the fruit particularly unctuous.

According to Mariani, “You have to find the right varieties” and not be put off by the cultivation challenges. He’s now growing 60 kinds of apricot from across the globe such as the Lasgerdii Mashad, a Persian variety whose ethereal taste chef David Kinch has said is like eating a cloud. “The newest trend,” he says, is small, outrageously sweet CandyCots; the bright-orange Yuliya from Central Asia tastes like honeyed marmalade.

The approximately 100 varieties of commercially grown stone fruit from Andy's Orchard are available via fruit subscriptions that send whatever is perfectly ripe to consumers the day after being picked. Photo: Susan Hathaway

The approximately 100 varieties of commercially grown stone fruit from Andy’s Orchard are available via fruit subscriptions that send whatever is perfectly ripe to consumers the day after being picked.

Besides all his heirloom, hand-picked fruit varieties, Mariani is a horticultural wizard who continually experiments with cross breeding or refining fruit, such as the incredibly sweet, juicy, flavorful Baby Crawford peach. This unnamed potential drying peach was rejected by UC Davis but resurrected, improved and christened by Mariani.

Horticulturalist Andy Mariani has an experimental orchard where he develops new strains of stone fruit. Photo: Susan Hathaway

Horticulturalist Andy Mariani has an experimental orchard where he develops new strains of stone fruit.

“We have one we’re calling ‘juice ball,’” he says. “It’s a nectarine that when you bite into it, it’s like a waterfall.” Then there are indescribably delicious varieties he grows like the Raspberry Red nectarine, with luscious flesh and complex flavors, or the stunning Silver Logan white peach with creamy texture, gushing juice and a super-rich, balanced taste.

After eating Mariani’s varieties, it’s depressing to learn details about the vast majority of California stone fruit orchards, which have mostly been relocated from the coastal areas with ideal climate like Santa Clara County. “Most peaches and nectarines now come from the Central Valley and they’re mass produced,” he explains. “They pick ‘em on the green side. Even the varieties themselves are being developed with more red blush only to hide the fact that they’re being picked green.

“They put them in bins, then they dump ‘em, defuzz ‘em, put fungicides on ‘em and pack ‘em. Then they go to a central distribution area and they can sit there for several weeks,” Mariani recites, with a sad look in his blue eyes. “An ideal fruit for growers now is something you can treat like gravel. You can throw it into the bins. But it has no sugar, no flavor.”

These Alameda Hemskirke 'cots are sweet and rare, with a rich flavor. Photo: Susan Hathaway

These Alameda Hemskirke ‘cots are sweet and rare, with a rich flavor.

Mariani likes to remind people that “The riper the fruit, the more perishable it is,” which underscores why supermarket stone fruit is frequently so disappointing. Another downside to putting green fruit in cold storage is that this creates the mealy texture that ultimately makes eating fruit a letdown.

He bemoans the myth that equates redness in peaches to ripeness, recalling the customer who once looked at some of his gloriously ripe, yellow Suncrest peaches and asked how long they needed to sit at home before turning red and thus being ready to eat. Mariani contrasts this with a high-production peach variety called Yukon King that is “red all over and hard as a rock. When you bite into it, it breaks off in chunks like Styrofoam.”

Rather than throwing all their fruit together like the factory farms, Andy's Orchard keeps each variety separate so consumers can experience their unique flavors and characteristics.

Rather than throwing all their fruit together like the factory farms, Andy’s Orchard keeps each variety separate so consumers can experience their unique flavors and characteristics.

He says he has become “jaundiced” about farmers markets. “There’s a lot of abuse,” he reports, with some vendors buying fruit from distribution centers and reselling it as their own. “That’s illegal but it happens a lot,” he notes. For this reason, Mariani trucks his fruit over 300 miles to the only farmers market he trusts, in Santa Monica.

Fortunately for Bay Area residents, Mariani has a retail store on his property (generally, fruit costs $3.50 per pound, which is equivalent to what the few other top-drawer producers charge) and his fruit is sold by produce vendors like Sigona’s (in Redwood City and Palo Alto) and C.J. Olson in Sunnyvale. The low-travel approach is a fruit subscription in which luscious, just-picked fruit is shipped to your door the next day.

The retail store at Andy's Orchard in Morgan Hill has a huge assortment of currently-ripe stone fruit as well as vegetables grown on the ranch and by neighbors. Photo: Susan Hathaway

The retail store at Andy’s Orchard in Morgan Hill has a huge assortment of currently-ripe stone fruit as well as vegetables grown on the ranch and by neighbors.

Mariani’s operation might be a throwback to a time when fruit tasted better and it was easier for small farmers to make a living, but it’s not immune to modern-day pressures. “We’re an island now,” he says, pointing at the spreading housing developments encroaching on his orchards. But as long as he’s able, Mariani wants his chin-dripping, exquisite fruit to continue going into the mouths of grateful customers.

The fruit trees at Andy's Orchard on the right are being crowded out as subdivisions increasingly take over Morgan Hill. Photo: Susan Hathaway

The fruit trees at Andy’s Orchard on the right are being crowded out as subdivisions increasingly take over Morgan Hill.

Andy Mariani’s tips for selecting stone fruit

    Season

  • Look for local cherries anywhere from early to mid June. Apricots come in anywhere from late June to early July. Peaches, nectarines and plums come in from July through August.
  • While there are early-season varieties, the best tasting varieties are those at peak season.
  • Get familiar with varieties and seek them out at farmers markets and stores rather than just buying generic supermarket fruit.
These ripening nectarines from Andy' Orchard are not from the inner part of the tree, thus will have higher quality and sweetness. Photo: Susan Hathaway

These ripening nectarines from Andy’ Orchard are not from the inner part of the tree, thus will have higher quality and sweetness.

    Looks

  • Some of the best fruit is cracked and ugly. Fantastic flavor is hiding underneath.
  • Brown spots in some apricots can mean that’s a particularly sweet spot.
  • Don’t assume red skin means ripeness in peaches. Look on the stem end at the ground color. If that’s gold or yellow, then generally, the peach is riper. If it’s green, the fruit is not ripe.
  • Look for the speckles on nectarines, which indicate sugar content and that the fruit is particularly sweet and was grown toward the outside of the tree, where the better fruit is located.
  • Avoid steep piles of fruit in the market because no tree-ripened fruit can handle such treatment. Such piles are of unripe fruit.
These speckles on Red Raspberry nectarines from Andy' Orchard indicate particular sweetness. Photo: Susan Hathaway

These speckles on Red Raspberry nectarines from Andy’s Orchard indicate particular sweetness.

    Feel and aroma

  • Touch the fruit and if it has a little give to it, it’s on its way to ripening. If it’s rubbery — which is different from being tender and delicate — that means it’s been around for awhile. Most supermarket fruit has been off the tree for at least a month.
  • Aromas usually aren’t there if the fruit isn’t ripe. Peaches, nectarines and particularly apricots, when ripe, will be aromatic. Smell is a great indicator of quality. However, cherries have no smell and most plums — except for Santa Rosa plums — don’t, either.
This earlier peach variety is juicy and sweet.

This earlier peach variety is juicy and sweet.

    Eating

  • For the most flavor, first bit into the sun-kissed end opposite the stem.
  • Cooking peaches ruins the flavor.

Information:

Andy’s Orchard
Address: [map]
1615 Half Road
Morgan Hill, CA 95037
Phone: (408) 782-7600
Hours (store): Open May 15-December 31; weekdays, 10-6; weekends, 10-4.
Facebook: Andy’s Orchard
Twitter: @AndysOrchard

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About the Author ()

From making blob-shaped pancakes for her family at age 6 to presumptuously reinventing recipes from well-known chefs, Susan has had a life-long food love affair. You'll usually find her sniffing out great ingredient sources, locating intriguing food stories, inventing recipes and exercising like a demon as an antidote to her passion. This Bay Area native is a longtime food & wine journalist and blogger who has contributed to regional publications such as the San Jose Mercury News and its affiliates, Metro, San Francisco Chronicle, South Bay Accent, Urbanspoon and other epistles that are lucky enough not to have been killed off yet by the publishing crisis.
  • Chris J

    Most peaches these days are pretty disappointing when it comes to actually being sweet. Too many are just as hard as their stone centers with as much flavor. Nice to hear this–