How to Tell if That Peach Is Ripe? Ask Southern California’s ‘Produce Hunter’

How to Tell if That Peach Is Ripe? Ask Southern California’s ‘Produce Hunter’

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Shopping at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, Karen Beverlin reached into a five-pound box of tart Belle Magnifique cherries, grabbed a couple and ate them.

Tart cherries are tricky to size up at a glance: Flavors can range from gently tangy to very sour, and just looking at them offers no reliable clues. All Ms. Beverlin had to go on was her palate. She ate a few more, and smiled.

She motioned to Tristan Aitchison, the chef de cuisine at Providence restaurant in Los Angeles. He hadn’t intended to buy cherries, but after seeing the look on her face — and tasting the cherry she held out to him — he decided he had to have five pounds. The stand, Andy’s Orchard, was already sold out, but Ms. Beverlin let him buy one of the boxes she had ordered.

“She’s the godmother of the market,” said Mr. Aitchison, who relies on her advice about what to buy as he plans his menus. Within a week, the roast duck entree at Providence sported a grilled cherry sauce.

Three times a week, Ms. Beverlin prowls farmers’ markets in Santa Monica and Hollywood, collecting intelligence and working with a handful of growers she has come to favor over time, while Fresh Point drivers load large orders onto two trucks parked at the market’s edge.

The Wednesday market in Santa Monica, the city’s biggest, runs one block by two blocks. Ms. Beverlin needs six hours to walk it.

At 59, after more than 30 years in the business, she is a market celebrity, interrupted every 50 feet by a young cook seeking advice or a veteran farmer eager to ply her with a sample. A tall, commanding presence with a rollicking laugh, she is easy to find: If a knot of people has gathered around a tomato or a plum, she is likely at the center of it, expounding.

Her first bit of advice, no matter where you shop: Don’t fall for a pretty face, because most produce has a different sort of “tell,” a visual giveaway that it’s ready to eat.

Tart cherries keep their secrets, but the best sweet cherries advertise with “tiny little pittings, in a cluster,” she said, and a matte finish rather than a patent-leather sheen. A great nectarine has “sugar spots, a bunch of little white freckles,” not a consistent hue.

As for peaches, she dismisses the red blush that may draw customers. The only color that matters, she said, is at the stem end, which should be yellow without a hint of green.

“Red exterior color was bred into peaches and nectarines,” she said, “because unripe fruit that’s red looks more attractive than unripe fruit that’s pale.”

Many people pinch fruit to gauge its ripeness, much to the horror of farmers. The standard five-fingertip squeeze bruises peaches, nectarines, apricots and avocados. Instead, Ms. Beverlin places a peach in her open palm, wraps her hand around it and barely flexes. If it gives just a bit, “firm, but not hard,” it’s ready.

On a recent Wednesday, she spent almost an hour at Andy’s Orchard — too much time, by her own admission — tasting and testing stone fruit with a portable Brix refractometer, which measures sugar levels in a few drops of juice. It’s the only objective measurement she relies on.

“It helps to communicate what I’m tasting,” she said. “All the chefs understand the Brix numbers, so it provides a baseline.”

She wasn’t looking for what most people think of as peak ripeness. She wanted fruit just shy of that point, when sugar levels are higher and it has the most flavor.

“It took me years before I realized what I was seeing: Tree-ripe fruit that’s firm tastes better than what is traditionally identified as ripe, when fruit is soft,” she said. “I think some consumers give up flavor to get juice running down their arms. But they don’t know what they are missing.” (She buys fruit that’s fairly firm, then lets it sit on the counter at home until it starts to yield. At that point it goes into the refrigerator so it won’t get soft.)

Ms. Beverlin headed down the street to visit her preferred group of stands — one for the best Burgundy plum, another for green beans, though none so far this season for “machos,” which is what farmers called male zucchini blossoms.

All the while, she kept up a running commentary: If the green cap at the stem end of an eggplant was starting to turn brown, it was getting dehydrated. If an artichoke wears a red heirloom sticker, which happens only in the spring and fall, “grab it,” she said, because it will outshine other varieties.

The farmers and chefs Ms. Beverlin works with consider her essential to their success, not only for her recommendations but also for logistical help.

Robin Koda, a farmer in South Dos Palos, northwest of Fresno, brings her rice to the market, but her truck is too small to handle 2,000-pound pallets for larger sales. So Ms. Beverlin arranged to send a Fresh Point truck once a month to pick up one or two pallets of rice and rice flour, increasing and stabilizing Ms. Koda’s business.

Mr. Aitchison said Ms. Beverlin is the main reason he and his boss, the Providence co-owner and chef Michael Cimarusti, order from Fresh Point. The restaurant buys all its organic dairy products from the company, as well as staples like garlic, fresh ginger, chives and shallots.

While Mr. Aitchison likes to shop the farmers’ markets himself, Ms. Beverlin occasionally adds special produce to his order — “an incredible advantage,” he said, for a chef who might not otherwise know that there were only two boxes of a particularly delicious nectarine.

As Ms. Beverlin worked the market, she got an urgent text from Hector Salas, a Fresh Point driver, saying that someone had dropped a zero from an order for 100 pounds of lemon cucumbers. The farmer had set aside only 10 pounds. What should he do?

She dispatched Mr. Salas in one direction and lit off in the other, rattled. When he reported that he had found 80 pounds from another farmer, she asked him what color they were.

“A good lemon cucumber should be a lemon-chiffon color, a light yellow,” she said. “Then the yellow turns darker, like the highlighter on my computer. The skin gets thicker. They’re overmature.”

Geography and farm practices matter, too. The ideal climate for tomatoes is hot days and cool nights, which describes Paso Robles, where Munak Ranch is located. To enrich the soil, Munak plants cover crops for three months every year, a formula the farm foreman, Hugo Gomez, keeps secret even from Ms. Beverlin, though she believes it involves peas and vetch. The process loosens the soil, provides better drainage, yields stronger plants and produces more flavorful tomatoes.

She checked in with Mr. Gomez about the Celebrity tomato crop, which was supposed to arrive in two weeks. When he told her they might be ready sooner, she flipped into acquisition mode on behalf of her chefs: Could she have them in a week? Could he bring some to the weekend markets?

She could; he would.

“Bye, Pumpkin,” said Ms. Beverlin, who reserves that nickname for a select few.

“Mamacita,” said Mr. Gomez, who has been farming longer than Ms. Beverlin has been placing orders.

Only one thing gnawed at her as she headed for the parking lot. Two farmers had asked, incredulous, if she was about to retire. They had heard a rumor she might, though neither remembered the source. Maybe it came from a competing distributor, she said — who else would have floated such a ludicrous idea?

“I’m going to die at this market,” said Ms. Beverlin, with a defiant smile and that laugh. “They’re going to call my daughter and say: ‘Hey, Amy, your mom just went down. Can you come by to pick her up?’”

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