If you frequent the Santa Monica farmers market — or any farmers market, really — you've probably seen David Karp, even if you didn't know who he was. For years, he's been as much a regular as the farmers he writes about, and he's hard to miss: Karp's customary market gear includes a many-pocketed vest, stuffed with reporters notebooks; a massive camera, of the sort you might imagine James Cameron takes on location; and often a pith helmet. And he's often laden with boxes of the fruit he writes about, either fruit he's discovered or, lately, grown himself with partner Andy Mariani of Andy's Orchard in Morgan Hills.
On Wednesday morning, June 4, Karp, who was known as the Fruit Detective before The New Yorker profiled him under that title in 2002, will move to the other side of the market stall. He and Mariani finally will bring their astonishing fruit to the Santa Monica Wednesday farmers market, starting with cherries and progressing over the course of the season to apricots, nectarines and maybe, if we're very lucky, greengage plums. Karp and Mariani will stay at the market as long as their fruit stays on the trees, likely until mid-September.]
To be clear: This is not your normal fruit, and these are decidedly not your normal fruit growers. When Karp and his pith helmet arrive at this week's market with Bings and Rainiers, as well as Black Tartarian and “the most amazing of all,” Black Republican cherries, it marks just the latest of a remarkable, and very unlikely, saga of pomology. Because both Karp and Mariani are pomologists, people who study and cultivate fruit, of the highest order.
Karp has written about fruit, most recently in a column in the Los Angeles Times (now stopped, to make way for his new venture on the other side of the table), and over the years for The New York Times, Gourmet, Saveur and many other publications.
It was 20 years ago, while he was writing about apricots for Saveur, that Karp met Mariani, whose family has grown fruit in California's Santa Clara Valley since 1931. As any good reporter would do, Karp then wrote about Mariani for Gourmet, a lovely piece (“Orchard of Dreams“) about how Mariani had overcome considerable obstacles (health crisis, family politics) to grow and operate his own Andy's Orchard on what's now about 55 acres.
What drew Karp to Mariani in the first place is the dedicated interest both men share in often difficult fruit, fruit that has gone missing over the centuries of industrialization, or been ignored because it's not easily marketable. This is specialty stone fruit, often very rare varieties not grown by anyone else. On his farm, Mariani now has some 250 varieties of cherries, peaches, nectarines, apricots and plums. Among these plums is the European greengage, what Karp likes to call “the most intensely delicious fruit in the world.”
Karp didn't just write about Mariani in Gourmet, send the farmer a few extra copies and go back to his desk; instead he funded an orchard, an 11-acre quadrant of land where Mariani could concentrate on growing for research and development. That orchard, planted eight years ago, was the first of four, all named for eminent pomologists, on which the two men have now worke together.
On such acres they're now growing all those cherries, as well as other cherry varieties, including Morello, Jubileum, Montmorency, Danube, and the Duke, an ancient variety that's a sweet and sour cross. Also on the trees: Rose Diamond nectarines; Kitrin Glozer's white experimental apricots; Mirabelle plums, loved in France but virtually unknown in this country; Blenheim, Flamboyant, Moorpark, CandyCot and Alameda Hemskirke apricots, the Hemskirke a prized apricot a century ago; Silver Logan white peaches; and Baby Crawford peaches, among other varieties.
The Baby Crawford peach, says Karp, also comes with a story: The Crawford was one of the touchstones of the 1900s, the favorite peach of fastidious housewives, as Karp describes it, but then it all but disappeared. He and Mariani found it on the “UC Davis reject pile” and decided to grow the fruit, which is bright yellow, with a small seed and plump flesh that's remarkably spicy and aromatic.
That's the kind of story you'll get from Karp, who collects information the way he does fruit, and is as likely to expound upon the history of farmers markets in Southern California as he is the qualities of the Black Republican cherries on the market table in front of him (father of the Bing cherry; huge gout du noyeau, or “flavor of the stone,” which makes it terrific for ice cream; name “a Civil War joke”).
To finally have access to the fruit of Andy's Orchard will come like a series of epiphanies, strung out over the fortunate Wednesdays as small gifts.