To Andy Mariani, it’s all about the fruit. His “fruit walks,” held several times per summer at Andy’s Orchard in Morgan Hill, take participants into an intimate fruit-tasting experience. “Nowadays, people get their fruit at the supermarket, and never really experience it,” he explains, standing amid the green rows of trees. “It’s picked green for shipping, and never gets ripe fully. Once it’s off the tree, it stops ripening. A supermarket peach isn’t what a peach is supposed to be. It should be fragrant and dripping with juice. When you pick a tree-ripened peach, you should leave five fingerprints on it when you pick it.” To demonstrate, he reaches into the tree next to him and picks a peach, huge and perfectly blushed. “See,” he says, holding it out. “That’s ripe.” There are five small indentations on the fruit. “Taste it,” he urges the woman nearest him, offering it to her. She takes it and bites into it, and juice oozes out and runs down her chin onto the ground. “That’s what a peach should be,” he states matter-of-factly. Everyone nods.
Andy knows his fruit. His family has been growing fruit in Santa Clara County since the 1930s. As Silicon Valley replaced the onetime “Valley of Heart’s Delight,” technology replaced the fruit orchards, forcing the fruit growers south. The ironically named Apple Computer campus now occupies land where the Mariani brothers once grew orchards. Mariani fruit, now grown in new locations, is still a staple of the local supermarket trade, but Andy follows a different drummer. While his brothers still grow fruit for the conventional market, his passion is artisan fruit, heirloom varieties plus the rare and exotic that might otherwise be lost to commerce. Artisan fruit has amazing taste and aroma, but it’s finicky. It’s not meant to be picked under-ripe and shipped to distant markets.
Andy’s Orchard occupies an old plot of agricultural land that was once a vineyard. (A hundred-year-old zinfandel vine, the last survivor, still grows up against a shed.) During prohibition, the vines were pulled out and the land became the site where fruit trees were grown for nursery stock. When Andy moved in, the site was planted to apricots and prunes for the dry fruit market. However, as cheap imports started to compete with the market, the orchard was replanted, mostly to cherries. Nowadays, many of the cherries have been replaced with peaches, nectarines, and plums, plus heirloom apricots. But Andy still grows cherries, remarkable cherries that are air-shipped around the country for mail order. The first two of his fruit walks, where visitors can go into the actual orchard, to pick and sample fruit, while learning about what makes tree-ripened fruit special, feature cherries. Later in the season, apricots, peaches and nectarines, and plums are featured. Andy doesn’t grow apples or pears, preferring the luscious and juicy stone fruits of summer that are ideally suited to the climate of Morgan Hill.
Most people believe it takes sustained heat to make a peach or plum sweet and tasty. Wrong, he says. The tastiest fruit is ripened slowly, and has a hint of tartness underlying the sweetly aromatic flesh. California’s Central Valley furnishes much of the fruit for the local markets, but that fruit is either picked green or ripens too fast, once it gets blasted by the heat of summer. Green fruit ceases to ripen, and while it ships well, it has about the same appeal as a supermarket tomato, which is also picked green. The flavor just never develops, and the fruit never acquires the fragrant sweetness of the tree-ripened product. With fruit that ripens quickly in summer heat, it becomes sweet quickly, too sweet, losing much of the background tartness that gives it complexity.
Stopping by a nectarine tree, Andy explains what to look for in a peach or nectarine. Most people think red means ripe, but it’s actually the yellow you look for,with a blush where the fruit faces the sun. Modern hybrids have been bred to be mostly reddish, to fool the consumer into thinking the fruit is riper than it really is. A nectarine should have freckles, splotches that indicate the spot where the sugars lie in heaviest concentration. Reaching into the tree, he explains proper picking, where you cradle the fruit in your hand and gently tug. If it doesn’t fall into your hand, it’s not ripe. Next, he explains how to eat it. Always start from the blossom end, where it’s sweetest, and bite into the area with the densest freckles. Then work your way toward the stem. “Eat dessert first, then work toward the broccoli,” he smiles.
As we wander through the orchard, we get to taste unknown fruits like the Honey Royal nectarine, with a honeyed taste like candy, or the sweet-tart Inca plum, a gigantic fruit. Some of the trees have already been harvested of ripe fruit, but Andy explains the age-old concept of gleaning, picking after the harvesters, to find those tasty last gems. He encourages us to pick up windfalls of the Flavor King Pluot, a plum-apricot cross. The windfalls have the deepest flavor, and they use them in the jam they make for the store. I find a windfall and bite into it. The flavor is rich and almost winey, with a hint of a tang under the intense sweetness. It’s a taste that makes you want more…but there are more fruits to come! Restraint comes hard, with so many amazing fruit to taste.
And every fruit walk features a wide variety of samples of whatever is in season, laid out on long, shaded tables. You start out nibbling on samples of a vast array of unusual and heirloom fruit, as well as dried fruit, fresh sorbet, and even crackers with cream cheese and jam. When the actual tour starts, everyone grabs buckets and picking trays, to gather the bounty of the orchard to purchase and take home. The first stop is the drying sheds. Andy still makes dried fruit the old-fashioned way, hand-cut from the pit and neatly arranged on hundred-year-old redwood drying trays. The fruit is treated with sulfur to preserve it and keep insects away, then dried in the sun, washed, dried, and sorted for packaging, much the way it’s been done since those antique drying trays were new. Even his pickers and cutters have been at it for twenty years or more, knowing exactly how to treat each fruit.
Andy’s Orchard, and its attached store and fruit stand, is a labor of love. Sure, he air ships special deliveries of hand-picked ripe fruit to gourmet chefs around the country, but “FedEx makes more money on it than we do.” And he’s a man with a mission. Many of his trees were developed by the USDA and slated to be dumped “on the genetic scrap heap” because they were unsuitable for agribusiness. Enter Andy Mariani. His signature fruit, the Baby Crawford Peach, is a meltingly delicious peach that dries well, but was deemed too delicate for shipping. He acquired it and propagated it, and now sells it both fresh and dried, as well as dipped in chocolate (!), as part of the special fruit candies carried by his store. However, you don’t need to visit to get a taste of Andy’s treats. He sells mail order through his web site, at www.andysorchard.com, and you can even order a subscription to weekly fruit deliveries throughout the season! You can order dried fruit, jams, gift packs, and the most amazing candies, year-round. Want to find his fruit in a supermarket? His overstock goes to Cosentino’s and Segona’s Markets, in the Bay Area. IF there is overstock, that is.
Andy describes himself as “on the other side of sixty,” but has no plans to retire. As a matter of fact, he’s still planting trees. We tasted a new white nectarine called Blizzard that could only be called “heaven in a fruit,” which he will be propagating as a future variety. One woman said she had tasted it the previous week, at a meeting of the Rare Fruit Growers, “and I’m still dreaming about it!” (Don’t ask for it, yet. There is only one tree, so we were rarely privileged in being able to taste it at all.) He’s also planting another ten acres with additional rare and heirloom fruit, plus some citrus. Why? He shrugs and smiles. “Planting fruit keeps me young.” We can only hope that his fruit continues to keep him young for a long, long time.
Want to sample for yourself? You can find directions through their website. The orchard and store are a little out of the way, requiring venturing through recent development projects, before you hit the countryside again. However, if you go astray, just give them a call, and they’ll talk you through finding it.
10:00am – 5:00pm Weekdays
10:00am – 4:00pm Saturdays
Open during the summer and holiday seasons (Mid-November thru December 31)