Heritage Avocados: There’s No Better Place Than Ventura County to Sample Many Varieties
Story and Photographs By Brenda Cusic
How many varieties of avocados do you think grow in California? Five? 50? Try 500! Ventura County is home to many wonderful varieties of avocados. Besides Hass—the “it” variety—you can also find Bacon, Edrinol, Gem, Fuerte, Reed, Nabal, Pinkerton, Sir Prize and many others.
Hass avocados dominate the commercial market and you can find them at any grocery store. But if you love local foods and want to try some of the other 499 varieties—be sure and check out local farmers’ markets. Ventura County’s avocados can also be found year-round, in season, at farm stands in front of people’s houses around the Ojai Valley or at Underwood Family Farms, among other locations.
Here are some of the different varieties, according to season:
Spring: Fuerte, Pinkerton, Bacon, Zutano, Santana, Rincon
Summer: Lamb, Mexicola, Mexicola Grande, Edrinol, Gem, Hass, Esther, Lady, Queen Fall: Reed, Lamb, Hass, Walter Hole, Stewart, Topa Topa Winter: Pinkerton, Bacon, Zutano
While you can’t actually call avocados “heirloom,” since that designation means a very specific seed designation, I call them “heritage” avocados. I have a passion for saving our old avocado trees and work with over 20 small farms and ranches in Ventura County to source their rare and unique varieties, which I now sell over the Internet. By doing this, I am hoping to insure that ranches don’t “top off” all of the old trees and convert them to Hass (the cash crop).
Many people think that Hass is the “best” avocado, and while it has a lot of wonderful qualities—long growing season, delicious savory flavor, turns from green to black to indicate ripeness—other varieties have their own features to brag about. Could you pick only one kind of lettuce to eat? Or say that only Granny Smith apples are the best? No, you need to choose the right apple for the purpose (Pie? Lunch box? Apple butter?)
Avocados are similar. Some types are ideal for guacamole, whereas other varieties are better for making shakes or using like a fruit. Still others are more suited for pickling or using in baking (to replace animal fats). If you are educated about the many varieties, you can really eat avocados year-round in Southern California.
Pinkerton avocados, for example, are very similar to Hass in flavor and texture; however, they ripen in winter, a few weeks ahead of the California Hass crop. Eating avocados seasonally can ensure that you get the best, most flavorful avocado, all year around. The challenge with Pinkertons is that they grow in an extreme pear shape, with a very long neck. The neck can ripen earlier than the “fat bottom.” But don’t worry: Simply cut a Pinkerton “around” rather than up and down (as one typically cuts a Hass) and eat the top portion first. Wrap the bottom half tightly with plastic wrap (right on the cut flesh) and let it ripen for another day or two on the counter. Sometimes Pinkertons have “strings” at the top (due to the long neck). Again, just cut off the top disc or two and throw those away. If you know your avocado variety, you can use it to its best advantage.
Another amazing, rare variety is the Mexicola. This tiny, plumlike avocado is much like the original avocados that the Spanish conquistadors might have found in Mexico hundreds of years ago. And while some people would ignore or even pass up a Mexicola, not knowing what to do with it, if you embrace this delicious morsel for its own strengths, you’ll come to adore them! The Mexicolas (as well as Topa Topas and Walter Holes) have thin, dark purple/black, edible skins.) When you eat the skin, you add a subtle anise flavor to your soft taco as well as additional fiber. My favorite way to eat a Mexicola is to pickle it.
Some avocados are more oily and savory. Others are watery and better suited to using as a fruit. If you’ve ever eaten a Reed avocado in the fall, you know they don’t make the best guacamole. However, if you cube a Reed and serve it with in-season berries and a squeeze of orange juice, you’ll have the best-tasting autumnal fruit salad in the state.
The other thing you need to know about a Reed is that it doesn’t get soft or turn black. The skin stays so hard, it can be used as a serving bowl. So how do you know if it’s ripe? Push on its “belly button” stem (like you would a cantaloupe) and if it gives a little bit, it’s probably ripe. Pull off the stem and make sure it’s green inside (not black) to ensure it’s not over ripe.
How about the most rare of avocados—the Nabal? It looks like a Reed but is oh, so much tastier and creamier. Most avocado ranches have a “family tree” of delicious fruit they don’t sell. Nine out of 10 times that tree is a Nabal (sometimes it’s a Queen). If you are lucky enough to be offered some, say yes! But don’t make guacamole. This is a fruit that deserves to be eaten “naked,” in its purest form. Try it with nothing on it just to savor the flavor itself. Then perhaps eat another slice with a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of your best sea salt. I prefer my Nabal with a fine California sparkling wine. (If any farmers would like to give me a Nabal—I will drive up to 200 miles to get one!)
So the next time you think “avocado,” I encourage you to think of what variety of avocado you are going to seek out. Why buy Hass avocados from another country when you could be eating a fresh, local, in-season avocado any time of the year here in Ventura County? Copy the seasonal list above and try out the amazing variety we enjoy here because most people in the world don’t get the amazing avocado choices we have right here in our own county.
Brenda Cusick is a fourth-generation Ventura County resident. She sells unique, rare heritage avocados to people all over the United States. For more information about avocado varieties and recipes visit AvocadoDiva.com.