Known as the “food basket of the world” S.J. Valley produces an abundance of citrus, grapes (raisin, table, and some wine), nuts, especially almonds and pistachios, and assorted veggies. It’s also a major dairy producer with fields of cows and feed-corn grazing and growing alongside the nut trees, grape vines and tomato plants.
Gary and I were on our annual pilgrimage to a conference in Las Vegas, and as is our tradition, after 3 days in the blaring light and noise of “Sin City,” we headed west into the desert, escaping to quieter if not cooler climes (the average daytime temps were 99-102° degrees), bound for Northern California, to visit my aunt, a vibrant 94-year-old, who lives Pt. Reyes Station, a quaint berg on the east side of the St. Andreas Fault (the bedrock side where if there’s a major quake, my aunt won’t feel it much). The temps there averaged a breezy 60-75° during the day, with dense morning and evening fog that shrouds near-by Black Mountain, fog that lifts around 10 each morning and returns each evening promptly at 7.
But back to the nuts... and our drive through the valley of the jolly pink “grape” trees. (Yes, we know that grapes don’t grow on trees.) Tooling along the highway, north of Fresno, we also noticed trees that had small brownish fruits arranged in neat rows close to the branches. Figs? Dates? Baffled, we took the next exit to get a closer look, an exit bearing a sign for Buchanan Hollow Nut Company, which promised tours and free samples. 4 miles later, we were disappointed to find that they were closed (it was a Sunday, after all) but we did get an intimate look at the trees with the brown fruit... they were almonds, adorable in their furry brown hulls. A few had split open and had fallen to the ground. We picked one up, brushed it off, tasted it... so sweet... the best almond I had ever eaten.
Lucky for us, they weren’t bitter almonds, which I learned, after an internet search, are toxic if eaten raw. Stupid move...But we were still mystified by the pink “grape” trees. The following Tuesday, while returning to Vegas to catch our flight home, backtracking through the same area where had been on Sunday, we stopped again at the nut place and this time they were open. Stepping into the store we were greeted by this cute little lady, Shirley, who offered me a homemade chocolate covered almond and asked us where we were from.
“Michigan, I replied.” Then I asked my burning question... “What are those trees with the pink ‘grapes?’”
“Pistachios,” she chirped.
Shirley led us outside into the blazing heat. There was a pistachio tree right next to the building. She picked a few and peeled off the soft pink hulls which resembled foam rubber. Inside were perfect, green pistachios in the shell, already split open just like at the grocery store. (I thought that they had to be split by machine or something, but no, that’s how they grow.) Shirley said that the harvest was still a week or so away, so the nuts were a bit immature, but still delicious.
“Try one.” She said, placing a nutmeat in the palm of my hand. I popped it my mouth. It was a little wettish, but still very pistachio-y.
Here’s a few fun facts I learned while talking to Shirley the Nut Lady:
-Pistachios were originally cultivated in the Middle East. There are 1000-year-old trees in Israel that are still bearing. It takes 30 years for a pistachio tree to come into its prime. Nuts must be hulled within 2 days of picking or the shells become discolored by the degrading hulls. Remember years ago when all pistachios were died red? The dye covered up discolored shells in the days before rapid machine hulling. The pistachio tree is a desert plant, with a tap root as deep as the tree is tall. There are male and female trees, and they don’t rely on pollinators. In the groves, there are 10 female trees clustered around each male tree. Talk about a harem.
- Almonds are the mother plant of all pit fruits: peach, plum, nectarine, cherry. Commercial almond trees are grafted onto a peach tree stock, because almond trees have shallow roots and tend to tip over easily. The pollination of California’s almond crop is the largest annual managed pollination event in the world, with close to one million bee hives trucked into the almond groves each February. By the way, you can dip my almonds in chocolate any time you want.
Almonds on the tree:
Pink “grapes.” I mean pistachios: