Sunday, January 29, 2006

Revelation 10, pt. 2: Andy's Orchard

sign right outside the door

So, we opened that jar of preserved peaches and there we were again on that warm Central Californian morning in early August, roaming around Andy's Orchard with Andy Marinari himself and our friend Adam, listening to Andy tell us about his many, many varieties of peaches, plums, nectarines, and pluots, and tasting sample after sample of the very finest fruit any of us had ever had...

We were only in California for two Mondays, and this was the first of them. We got up rather early that day (at least by vacation standards) because we had a 9:00 AM appointment, and we had a lot of driving to do before then. Plus, we were excited. We were going to Morgan Hill, of all places (you can see it there, some 15-20 miles southeast of downtown San Jose),

Do you know the way to Morgan Hill?

but we were going there for a very special occasion. I’d been to Morgan Hill a couple of times when I was a kid, but not for stone fruits. They had a restaurant there in the hills, perched near a municipal airport. This being California in the early ‘80s, it was themed accordingly, festooned with aviation memorabilia of all sorts and bearing the name The Flying Dutchman, or something to that effect. We used to go from time to time for the “legendary” buffet brunch that some family friends had discovered there (they owned a light aircraft) and tipped us off to. This time around there were no Flying Dutchmen to contend with, thankfully. No, this particular trip to Morgan Hill was virtually kitsch-free (as kitsch-free as any drive across California, with its mission-style strip malls, hotel convention centers, and suburban homes, can be). Adam had lined up a very exclusive orchard tour at Andy’s Orchard, and he was kind enough to invite us along. We'll be forever indebted.

andy's label

If you missed David Karp’s profile of Andy Marinari and his orchard in the July 2005 issue of Gourmet, Marinari has a reputation for being one of the finest and most creative pomologists and horticulturists on the continent, and Andy’s is quite simply one of the finest stone fruit orchards in America. Possibly even the finest. Andy comes from a family that has been growing fruit in the Santa Clara Valley for some 60 years, but he only turned to serious farming fruit himself when a long bout with a debilitating and potentially life-threatening illness brought him back to the land. Although Marinari underwent years of radical medical treatment, cultivating the land became a crucial, and ultimately lasting, part of his therapy. Karp devotes a lot of attention to Marinari’s triumph over adversity (his condition has remained in remission for some 25 years now)—for him it’s key to understanding Marinari’s dedication to his orchard, his search for the perfect fruit of his childhood, his utter mastery of horticulture and his passion for developing new varieties— but at the time that we visited Andy’s Orchard I hadn’t had a chance to read Karp’s article, so I was none the wiser when it came to all this back-story. Marinari made one brief allusion to it, assuming we’d all read Karp’s story, but otherwise he was humble and self-effacing, much more eager to discuss his trees and his fruit than any of the details of his life.

I was curious to know if there was any connection between him and the Marinari family in Cupertino. I’d grown up in neighboring Sunnyvale, and the Marinari family ran one of the biggest and best orchards in the area at the time. Already by that time (the late 1970s and early 1980s) the Santa Clara Valley had only a tiny fraction of the orchards that it had had only 20-30 years earlier. Luckily we still had Olson’s for Bing cherries and Marinari’s for dried fruit (such as their notorious “Wrinkles,” their chocolate-covered prunes). Turns out the Marinaris were one and the same, a Yugoslavian family (I’d always just assumed they were of Italian descent) whose patriarch worked as a commercial fisherman but developed a passion for growing fruit.

pretty peach tree

Marinari has a shy demeanor, but he sensed our enthusiasm—I’m sure it wasn’t difficult—and as soon as he could tell that we knew something about a good peach, plum, or nectarine, and that we shared his passion for tree-ripened fruit, Marinari’s stride picked up a bit—he only had a couple of hours before the midday heat set in and before he had to get back to business, and he wanted to show us as many varieties of fruit as possible. As we hustled around his orchard from one row to another (Baby Crawfords to Heavenly Whites, say), Marinari really started to open up to us about his fruit, about knowing the optimum moment to pick them, about the loving care and attention needed to achieve perfect fruit, and about insisting on the best. You could sense his pride as gave us his tour, but he really beamed each time we sampled one of his prize pieces of fruit. You see, he was taking us to particular trees and picking the ripest, most perfect examples of each fruit. At each stop, however, he’d say something to the effect of, “Not bad, but these are about two to three days from reaching their peak.” Later, he gave Michelle an entire box of Baby Crawfords that had been deemed unsuitable for sale (as fresh fruit, anyway). If we’d never gotten that tour of Marinari’s orchard, those “unsellable” peaches would have been by far and away the very best peaches I’ve ever tasted. The fruit we’d been tasting right off the trees were sheer Paradise. That’s why he was beaming. We were absolutely ecstatic at every station of the tour.

dried fruit, Andy's

When he’d shown us as many varieties as he possibly could, and we’d sampled as many varieties as we could possibly taste (afterwards we figured we must have tasted somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 different pieces of fruit), Andy took us over to the drying and packing area of the operation. Andy’s Orchard ships tree-ripened fruit in specially designed crates all across America to discerning (and evidently wealthy) fruit-lovers—in fact, they even ship to Japan these days—but drying fruit is not only an excellent way to preserve fruit, it’s also the easiest, most economical way to prepare fruit for shipping. Things have changed since the days when California dried a massive percentage of its fruit production so that it could be shipped great distances to the population centers to the east—California is now the most populous state in the Union and “fresh” fruit is now shipped from one hemisphere to another, among other things—but Andy’s still devotes a healthy portion of its crop to drying. There’s no better way to salvage those pieces of fruit that aren’t quite up to Andy’s exacting standards for fresh fruit, and as we know all too well, those “castoffs” are better than the best fruit most of us have ever tasted—consequently, they make for the best dried fruit you’ve ever tasted. The real money may be in fresh fruit, but Andy’s is proof that there’s a demand for superior dried fruit, too.

tree-ripened peaches

When we’d finished inspecting the dried fruit works, Andy ran off to tend to business and we were left to take in the scene on our own. The temperature had risen steadily since we first arrived and we were getting a pretty good taste of what makes the conditions in Morgan Hill particularly ideal for the cultivation of stone fruits: cool nights and mornings followed by steady, dry heat. It may have had something to do with the copious amounts of fructose coursing through my veins, or the combination of the fructose and the heat, but it was then that I suddenly had a vision. It’s not like we’d been alone at the orchard with Andy—there’d been plenty of his employees and co-workers moving around the grounds, doing their daily work—but all of a sudden I spotted someone who left an impression. There was an older gentleman sitting in a golf cart watching us. He looked kind of interesting with his long, white beard and tattoos, even kind of familiar, so I walked over to talk to him. I found out his name was Henry. We ended up talking about urban and suburban sprawl and the way the region had changed over the decades. We talked about the fact that he hadn’t set foot in San Jose, just 15 miles to the south, since the ‘70s. I found out that he’d been with the Marinari family since the late ‘60s, when he retired from driving a truck, and that he lived in a trailer and rarely left the orchard grounds anymore. And that's when I realized where I’d seen him before: in the work of R. Crumb. See, he looked a lot like Mr. Natural. I asked him what he had planned that afternoon and he said, “Just takin’ it easy. Been takin’ it easy since ’67.” In the pages of the, the “curator” puts forward the theory that “Natch” was based not on Professor O.G. Wottasnozzle of Popeye fame, as Harvey Pekar once claimed, but on the “little hitchhiker.” Suffice to say, I’ve got my own theory. Keep on truckin', indeed. Too bad I never worked up the courage to ask Henry if I could take his picture.

part of Andy's collection of vintage fruit labels

Anyway, when I’d said adios to Henry, and Adam, Michelle, and I had decided it was just about time to make a move (we were still hoping to make it to San Juan Bautista for lunch, after all), there was only one thing left to do: hit the gift shop. The gift shop is a relatively new addition to Andy’s Orchard. Andy’s focus has always been first and foremost on the quality (and variety) of his fruit. It's only recently that he's begun to concern himself with marketing his product in new ways. We admired Andy’s collection of vintage fruit cans—just look at those varieties of canned fruit that have since become extinct—bought some dried fruit assortments for family and friends, and then hung around just long enough to grab Andy one last time so we could thank him and wish him a proper goodbye.

Andy was a bit embarrassed by the request, but I managed to muster the courage to ask him for his photograph. I took the photo below and we drove off into the 100 degree Fahrenheit heat. Hours later we were still on a fruit sugar high. Actually, maybe it was just our good fortune that had us buzzing.

Michelle, Andy, and Adam

See? That’s what happens when you bust open a can of the fruit your preserved during your summer vacation. Find this hard to believe? Try it. You’ll see…


note: this is the final installment in our Revelations series, all of which stemmed from our July-August 2005 trip to California. Special thanks to Karina for making the trip possible.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Wonderful write! I have been dreaming about starting an home orchard on about an acre of land in Morgan Hill. Happened to read about Andy on the internet. We went to meet him, we were so star struck. Such a wonderful person, he spent almost a couple of hours drawing up a plan for an boutique home orchard for us.

Thanks for writing so glowingly about him. I can totally relate.