This post was last updated on July 11th, 2014 at 12:52 pm
From here in central California, California’s food basket, we have seen lots of food grow and some of it is a delightful surprise and some is simply strange. Mom and I sat over wine one evening discussing the most unusual we have seen in California and in our travels and we present them to you here, in no particular strangeness order.
Rice and Taro: Don’t fall in unless you’re a good swimmer
True story: Just east of Interstate 5 in California, right up the Central Valley where the soil is alkaline and it looks like a desert, a large farmer used to grow rice. The first time we saw it we screeched to a halt and gawked. Rice? In a desert? We assumed the farmer was Boswell because he owns a ridiculous amount of water rights in that area and it takes a ridiculous amount of water to grow rice.
Rice fields are flooded. Really, really flooded.
Rice, like all grains, is the seed head of a grass, so the grasses grow in those flooded waters until the seeds are ready to harvest and only then do they ended up looking something like the rice in your sushi, of course the outer hulls have to be scraped off to turn it from the brown stuff you probably turn your nose up to.
Taro is equally drenched. At a taro farm tour in Kauai, the level of water saturation is apparent seeing this fourth generation taro farmer up to her calves in water, and walking around with rubber boots like she owned the place. They keep the fields crisply manicured to keep the water where it needs to be. I caught her grandfather on his tractor trimming up the edges of the fields.
Chocolate: Looking absolutely nothing like chocolate
It may be hard to communicate just how strange it is that chocolate grows. First, it’s the “cacao” that grows and gets turned into chocolate, but even the cacao is a strange bird. Cacao looks something like a coffee bean and when my brain thinks “bean,” it actually thinks “bean.” My brain does not think “pod on a short tree that has seeds inside that are all mushy and need to be fermented before they can even hope to be chocolate.”
These trees are on Steelgrass Farm, in the foothills above the town of Kapaa on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. The pods on the left are immature and contain inside something that will become chocolate. The ripe version is on the right.
Look at that bad boy opened up. Those seed things will be fermented and roasted to become what you possibly have seen before — cacao. Cacao is then the key ingredient in chocolate.
Coffee: These things aren’t beans either
Again, the word “bean” conjures up many images and this is not one of them. Here is the fruit of the coffee plant. Granted it looks far more “bean-like” than the chocolate, but live in person, these things taste more like a tangy little fruit that you would never bother to eat. Called a “cherry,” the skin is actually a bit cherry-like in texture, a bit bitter in flavor. If you think of a cherry with the fruit part and the pit, the coffee would-be-beans are the “pit” and a very thin layer covers them making them look and sort of taste like cherries.
The trees are small and produce a pound of “beans” each. They are planted 2-3 feet apart depending on the variety but you still don’t get a whole lot of bean out of an acre. On top of that, these trees are watered automatically every six hours and that is on top of the 25 inches of rain on that part of the island. These trees would absolutely bankrupt a California farmer.
The cherries in the photo at the top are ready to harvest — the red and yellow are perfectly ripe, the green are under-ripe, and the brown are over-ripe. However, when they are harvested they all get shaken off together and then sorted. The ripe berries are used for more premium products and the rest used in some of those “flavored coffees” that seem to be popular in holiday gift baskets. You pay about the same for those bags as for the premium whole bean options making the flavored coffees a clever product for coffee manufacturers.
The skin is removed from the seeds and the seeds are dried and become a light-tan dry and hard “bean” that can be stored for years in a cool, dry place. Once they are roasted (at the somewhat shocking temperature of 1500 degrees), they turn dark and develop the coffee flavor we all love so much.
Mushrooms: Closer to manure than you may care to know
Do you have a racing stable with a lot of extra horse manure? What will you do with all of it? Haul it to your friendly mushroom farm. It may want your extra straw too…
Here in the Sequoia National Forest, mushrooms grow wild on old stumps and downed trees and also nestled below native grasses and leaves. Mushroom farmers reproduce the natural mushroom environment with straw and compost.
The video below shows a mushroom operation with an indoor grow room — a typical set-up for commercial mushrooms. Smaller growers may cultivate their mushrooms outdoors, with lower capital costs but also potentially prone to weather problems (yes, like all farming).
The vitamin D mushrooms? How do they get their vitamin D? The same way we do: By being exposed to the sunlight (or UV light of some kind in some commercial operations). Our own skin takes in sunshine and creates vitamin D. Somehow, mushrooms have the same super power and are labeled as such if they have been allowed UV light.
Persimmons: The Halloween Suessian Fruit
It’s not so much about how they grow as much as how wickedly strange they look at harvest. Persimmons are a tree fruit that ripen with freezing temperature. Persimmon trees are also deciduous meaning that their leaves fall off in that same freeze. You are left with a tree covered with bright orange ornaments. It’s really a spectacular site to behold.
Artichokes: If Mars could grow vegetables, this might be one
Have you stumbled on a wild thistle plant? If you have, it was probably a memorable experience because those plants are mean. They grow with a “take no prisoners” kind of attitude, locally here with a beautiful pink flower to tempt you and then all prickly to grab you and shake you down should you be unawares.
Picture that pink flower on the wild thistle. Now imagine that the pink flower is an artichoke.
I don’t know how I would have guessed artichokes grew — perhaps hanging from a tree. I would not have guessed that artichokes grow pretty much like those wild thistles. They grow like those wild thistles mainly due to the fact that they are thistles.
Do try to see a commercial artichoke operation some time, especially close to harvest time. It’s an other-worldly experience that is hard to capture in a photo.
Pineapple: Really? On a bush?
I don’t know how I ever imagined pineapples grew, but had you asked me I don’t think I would have guessed “a bush.” I also would have not guessed that they could be propagated from their green tops.
We caught up with a pineapple farmer on Kauai and parted with way too many of our dollars in the process, tasting and buying her variety of pineapples. Walking away with pineapples and empty pockets, our response was “How can we earn more money to eat more of these pineapples?”
Here’s a video by Dole, showing the commercial cultivation and harvesting of pineapples.