Some of these fruits were first grown in California, and some took thousands of years to get there. Learn their histories here.
Earlier versions of the descriptions of these foods first appeared in 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die, edited by Frances Case (2008). Writers’ names appear in parentheses.
Mara des Bois strawberry
For many millennia, tiny, alpine strawberries were beloved in Europe. They were first picked 8,000 years ago, and the Romans valued them highly. Yet European arrival in North America later revealed sturdier, larger species that were introduced to Europe and hybridized with existing fruit. Faced with this competition, the soft, low-yielding alpines began to fall from favour.
In 1991 a French laboratory created the Mara des Bois strawberry, a hybrid of four different strains of berry, with the aim of capturing the fragrance and flavour of an alpine strawberry and packaging it in a berry with the firm texture of contemporary varieties. Available on the market for an extended growing season, from springtime until the first frosts, this fantastically fragrant fruit fetches a premium price and accounts for about a tenth of France’s strawberry harvest. The colour ranges from brick red to pinkish purple, while the berries may be as small as a pea or as large as a plum. Cultivation is expanding from its heartland in southwest France to California, the United Kingdom, and beyond. (Heidi Fuller-Love)
The fruit of a palm tree (Phoenix dactylifera) which grows in clusters in hot climates from North Africa to California, the date has been cultivated since prehistoric times. By the beginnings of the ancient civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia it was already a staple, and it is still a vital component in the diets of many around the world.
The maturation cycle is known around the world by its Arabic names. Khalal denotes a date that has reached full size but is still hard and pale; bisr is when the fruit begins to colour; during rutab the date begins to soften at the tip; at tamr the dates are ready to be packed. Barhi dates are one of few cultivars that are enjoyable to eat at the khalal stage.
Barhis, which probably originated in Basra, Iraq, are popular across the Arab world, and they have been grown in California since the early 20th century. Firm, round, pale yellow, and as crunchy as an apple at the khalal stage, they are naturally high in sugar. During the rutab stage they become known as “honey balls” for the sweet liquid that pools inside their fragile surface. (Frances Case)
Cultivated in China for more than four millennia, over the centuries the apricot has traversed the globe. By the 1st century CE, cuttings had reached Europe by way of the Middle East. Later, Spanish colonists brought the fruit to Mexico and from there to California. By the turn of the 20th century, a burgeoning apricot industry was in place in the state, and groves of California’s trademark variety, the Blenheim, flourished all around San Jose. As acreage was lost to housing development, farmers moved out to poorer land. Although prized for its flavour and scent, the Blenheim apricot is particularly delicate and does not hold up well to transport or storage. During the second half of the century its popularity gave way to sturdier varieties.
By the close of the 20th century, the Blenheim was in danger of extinction. Today, interest in heirloom fruit varieties is helping rescue it from the brink. Small, often organic, farms are creating a new generation of enthusiasts to support this delicate fruit, seeking it out at farmers’ markets or orchard stands in early summer. (Cynthia Nims)
The lumpy exterior of this pear-shaped fruit belies the creamy, elegant interior that has led it to be called “the jewel of the Incas.” Mark Twain described it as “the most delicious fruit known to men.” Native to Ecuador and Peru, the cherimoya (Annona cherimola) is now cultivated not only in Hawaii, where Twain encountered it, but in many subtropical areas around the world, as well as the California coast and New Zealand. Its name derives from the Quechuan languages of the former Inca Empire and means “cold seeds.” The cherimoya is one of several fruits that can also be called “custard apple,” because of the custardy texture of its flesh.
When ripe, cherimoyas yield to slight pressure. They can then be halved or sliced, and the flesh scooped out with a spoon. (The seeds and skin are not edible.) Cherimoyas make a valuable addition to a fruit salad of apples, berries, and bananas, or they give an interesting flavour contrast when served with red or white wine. They also make a good ice cream or sorbet. (Suzanne Hall)
In Japan, Kyoho grapes are considered the essence of grapes. The short season, exceptional flavour, and regal appearance of these large, dark purple fruits mean they often come with a hefty price tag. The grapes are given as gifts during the traditional August season.
A cross between the varieties Campbell and centennial, Kyoho originate from Kyushu, Japan’s southern island. The name means “great mountain,” and the best still grow in the region of Tanushimaru on the fertile Chikugo Plain at the base of the Mino Mountains. These Japanese Kyoho grapes are the size of small plums with a thick velvety skin, spectacularly sweet flesh, and large seeds that are bitter and inedible. Served cold, peeled, and unadorned, they make a luxurious dessert. They are also at the heart of the exclusive Kyoho wine.
Kyoho grapes are now cultivated outside Japan, notably in Korea, Taiwan, California, and Chile, which means they are available outside Japan, for a longer season, and at less phenomenal prices. (Shirley Booth)
The fruit of a subtropical tree, the avocado (Persea americana) has been cultivated in central and South America since about 7000 BCE. The Hass variety is smaller than many others, higher in oil, easier to peel, and richer in flavour: it is a hybrid of species originally from Mexico and Guatemala.
Developed by Californian Rudolph Hass in the 1920s and patented by him in 1935, the Hass has pebbly skin that darkens as it ripens from green through to indigo or almost black. It is the most widely cultivated avocado in the United States and is also grown extensively in Mexico. (All Hass avocado trees trace their lineage back to a single mother tree, which died in 2002 aged 75.)
Although not primarily used as a butter substitute, as it was by 17th-century sailors—hence its names of midshipman’s butter and butter pear—the avocado is still most often used raw. Guacamole, the simple mash that dates back to 15th- and 16th-century Aztecs, is by far the best known dish. But the avocado also has a starring role in Cobb salad, a blend created at Los Angeles’ Brown Derby restaurant. (Suzanne Hall)
Softer and larger than blackberries, with a sweeter flavour, smaller seeds, and a colour closer to maroon or indigo than black, boysenberries have a rather complicated heritage. They are named after Rudolph Boysen, a California farmer who developed the fruit in 1923 but failed to sustain a crop, and are a cross between blackberries, raspberries, and loganberries—which are in turn believed to be a hybrid of a blackberry and a raspberry. Boysen turned development of the berry over to farmer Walter Knott for commercial development.
Similar to the blackberries found growing wild around the globe (though some varieties of boysenberry have no thorns), boysenberries are grown commercially in Chile, New Zealand, Australia, and the Pacific coast of the United States from southern California to Oregon. Good raw, when they can top breakfast cereals and adorn green salads, their flavour is enhanced by being lightly cooked. Chefs use them to create sauces and purées to accompany meats and poultry, sometimes paired with ingredients such as ceps. Boysenberries also do well in jams, jellies, pies, tarts, and cobblers, or simply served fresh with cream, and perhaps a hint of sugar. (Suzanne Hall)