It’s just a few minutes past 8:30 a.m., and a stand piled with bananas at the Santa Monica Farmers Market is mobbed with customers hurling questions. “Which of these is ready for eating right now?” asks a man with a toddler strapped in a stroller. “Will these make good banana bread?” counters a woman holding a massive bunch of bright yellow fruit. Two older men who look as if they’ve spent the last decade backpacking the subcontinent ask which bananas the locals in India would prefer, while other customers break large bunches of fruit into smaller ones.
Andy Sheaffer of Vista Punta Gorda Ranch in Ventura County and a ranch employee do their best to keep up with the questions while defending the crop against grabby customers. Bananas that are completely yellow end to end can be eaten immediately and are scooped up quickly by the hoards. The ones with a hint of green at the tips should be ready in a day or two, and they’re all great for baking once they’ve fully ripened.
If this sounds like a lot of excitement for bananas that are half the size of the imported versions you can get at Albertsons, know that it’s been a long time since area farmers market shoppers have had access to local bananas. Farmers market supervisor Laura Avery recalls a small offering from Seaside Banana Gardens decades ago but says owner Doug Richardson’s supply at the market was minimal — and that it disappeared completely after landslides inundated his farm. “We’ve never really had commercial bananas at the farmers market,” she says.
That’s likely because bananas can be finicky. Sheaffer's current banana crop has been five years in the making, and he admits he was going to give up on the project if it didn’t work out this season. Early plantings produced spottily, and last year his trees were ravaged by winds. It wasn’t until recently that he established plants in a location with the right combination of shelter and access to sunlight. Now they’re producing enough fruit to warrant trucking the bananas to Santa Monica.
Sheaffer offered two varieties at last week’s market. The Brazilian dwarf looks like mobster’s fingers, with short, tight clusters of chubby fruit. Their flavor is bright and crisp with acidity, lending them the nickname “apple bananas.” Raja Puri bananas are smaller and slightly sweeter. Both are delicate, with thin peels that easily gave way to the plump fruit beneath.
In the coming weeks, so-called ice cream bananas — known for their pronounced vanilla flavor — will become available, along with other varieties. Sheaffer thinks his crop will peak soon and run strong until late spring or early summer, producing enough fruit to keep both the Wednesday and Saturday markets in Santa Monica well stocked.