It wasn't too long ago — 10 years, maybe less — when you couldn't find pitaya, a.k.a. dragonfruit, for under $15 a pound. And that was assuming you could find it at all. Only a handful California farmers even knew what it was, let alone grew it. Those who did were passionate advocates, going out to the plants after dark when they bloomed to carefully collect pollen and hand-pollinate before the blooms closed at dawn.
Pitaya thrives in consistently cool coastal climates; it can be grown farther inland but requires protection during hotter months. Valdivia Farms in Carlsbad — known for their year-round supply of super juicy tomatoes and perfectly tended squash blossoms — has been growing dragonfruit for a few years now. The tomatoes are good, but this time of year the small and eager crowd pushing their way in around the scale are there for one thing.
Among the California Rare Fruit Growers crowd, carefully-bred types of dragonfruit will be identified by the names their plant breeders gave them — Cebra Red, Tricia, Bien Hoa White, Pink Panther and Physical Graffiti to name a handful. The varieties you find at local markets will likely be called simply white, red, pink or yellow, the identifying color of the edible flesh inside.
Pink and red buyers beware — wear nothing white while preparing or eating the fruit. Their vivid juice is saturated with gorgeous pigment that stains, not unlike a good pomegranate or dark Corncord grape juice. The taste of all varieties varies in subtle ways, but in general they're much like a blend of very sweet kiwi, pear and berries. The flesh isn't segmented, and is spoonable straight from the rind.
Selecting ripe dragonfruit is much like selecting a good avocado. You want a little bit of give but no squish. The exterior color should be mostly even across the fruit, exempting the “scales” or leaves that feather the rind. Those, naturally, are the first things to get damaged on the fruit, but can indicate the level of freshness by their firmness.
Samples are rare to non-existent given the price point, so if you're in doubt, ask the grower to pick them for you. Valdivia's fruits are currently clocking in at about a pound and are the size of croquet balls, so prepare for a little sticker shock when stocking up. Prices have been dropping, thanks to increased commercial interest, but we're still another decade away from typical orchard pricing. Valdivia will have the dragonfruit for another month, weather willing.
Find your local market on our farmers market list.
Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.