Green glean: Fuerte avocados, a family Christmas tradition
*Allow me to get sidetracked a little farther south for this post, to West Covina, outside Los Angeles, where we spent Christmas.
Every Christmas, my husband’s family has a wonderfully Californian holiday tradition: Picking avocados.
Wielding a long pole with a metal basket attached at the end, they reach over the fence of Grant’s grandparents’ West Covina home and snag avocados dangling from the branches of the neighbor’s avocado tree. They store them in brown paper bags to help them ripen, then lay them out as Christmas appetizers with a little garlic salt, making sure to save some for later.
They’ve done this for the past 11 years, missing only one year, when the tree crossed paths with an overzealous arborist.
Bill and Jackie, Grant’s grandparents, said this neighborly avocado gleaning—a word the family was amused to hear is a trend now—started when they moved there in 2000. Bill struck up a conversation with his neighbor, who owned the avocado tree and was a Navy veteran like him. Before their talk ended, Bill was offered a bag of avocados and free reign to whatever hung on Bill’s side of the fence. That neighbor has since moved on, but luckily, the new owners are happy to share, as well.
“They usually ask you, ‘Would you like some avocados?’, and then you go on your own,” said Bill.
But these aren’t just any avocados.
“There’s about four brands of avocado I know of …” said Bill at the kitchen table.
“But they’re not like this,” added Jackie.
There are actually nearly 500 varieties of avocado, with seven of them grown commercially in California. According to the California Avocado Commission, Hass avocados make up about 95 percent of the total crop.
But Bill and Jackie’s avocados are nothing like avocados at the grocery market, where the window of ripeness is somehow lost between stages of blackened and shriveled.
These are the Fuerte variety, a Guatemalan/Mexican cross meaning “strong” in Spanish.
Based on taste and feel alone, “Fuerte” may seem like a misnomer. The flavor is subtle, rich, and creamy. The skin is smooth, like soft leather, and peels at the slightest nick of a blade. Its thin skin is one reason the Fuerte is no longer California’s leading market variety, as it was in the 1950s, when it represented about two-thirds of the state’s avocado production. As avocados began to reach a mass market, the Hass—with its tough outer skin—became the preferred avocado for its ability to withstand the jostles and jolts of transportation. The name “Fuerte,” however, comes from its ability to withstand severe frost—it’s hardy to 26 degrees Fahrenheit.
No disrespect to Hass, but this practical business decision about transport means that most Americans are missing out on one of the most delicious avocados ever grown. For starters, it’s about twice the size of your average supermarket avocado. It’s a beautiful fruit—pear-shaped and bright green. And the all-important taste is like biting into butter—if butter were full of healthy fats and tasted like cream.
“These here, if they were in the store, they’d be $4.50 an avocado,” Bill wagered.
Growing up in rural Missouri, I didn’t eat an avocado until I was well into my teens. But they’re one of the few foods my 2-year-old, Lily, wholeheartedly eats. This particular fruit-picking was fun for her because she just got a Radio Flyer red wagon, which we immediately put to use collecting the avocados and then giving her a ride. Apparently, it wore her out.
While friends and family are rewarded with lifetime supplies of guacamole fixings, Bill said, “Who really loves the avocado tree—the main inhabitant—is the hummingbird.”
Several hummingbirds flit back and forth between Bill and Jackie’s hummingbird feeder and the avocado tree a few feet away. Their busy beaks—and a second avocado tree in their neighbor’s backyard—mean the tree has plenty of help with pollination, helping to ensure a good Fuerte harvest year after year.
“Thank goodness they’re hanging over our wall,” said Bill.
Fuerte avocados originated in Puebla, Mexico.
In Southern California, where the majority of them are grown, they start to come on around September, with harvest season kicking into high gear in November and finishing up around February.