I am a geek. But you knew that.
I am particularly geeky when it comes to collecting useless information about things that interest me. Things like avocados.
Now we can all be geeks when it comes to avocados. And for avocado geeks this is prime season, because the famed ‘Hass’ avocado is getting ready to peak. Meaning geeks everywhere can get quality avocados grown in California at a rate of 90% of the domestic US supply.
We all love the ‘Hass’. I would never dis it! It has a nutty flavor and is rich and buttery. If you live outside California, or Florida the ‘Hass’ may be the only variety of avocado you know. That’s because it is thick skinned, peels easily and has high oil content, which delivers its superior flavor.
In our hemisphere ‘Hass’ blooms between February and May. But it has the advantage of being able to be harvested year round, because in general avocados can hang on the tree a long time. Like pears, avocados ripen only after they are picked, allowing the fruit to be shipped while still firm, minimizing bruising and other sorts of damage. The thick skin of ‘Hass’ avocados only adds to their appeal to commercial growers, because they travel best of all the types of avocado. It’s this combination of great taste and thick skin that makes ‘Hass’ the reining royalty of commercial avocado varieties. But it’s not the only variety of avocado out there.
Avocados grow in warm climates. Not everyone lives in a warm climate. But due to its ability to travel far without damage the ‘Hass’ variety has caught on in places as far away as Japan. The French love avocados too, consuming an average of four pounds a year per person. That’s more than Americans who eat an average of two pounds each. Of course we Californians have corner on the market, so we eat about six pounds a year.
That’s a lot of ‘Hass’! But how did the success come about?
Well, Europeans discovered avocados when Cortez landed in the Americas in the sixteenth century, but Native Americans had eaten avocados for centuries. Excavators have unearthed avocado pits in Peru that date to before 900 AD. Of course they weren’t ‘Hass’, but they were relatives to our modern day best seller.
The ‘Hass’ was born in a backyard of a mailman in La Habra Heights, California in the 1930s. It has a long complicated history. It did not start out as the most commercially viable of the avocados– that honor belongs to ‘Fuerte’.
‘Fuerte’ remains my personal favorite avocado. But I am a recent convert because it’s not nearly as accessible to the consumer as the ‘Hass’– even here in California. Until now. See side bar.
The ‘Fuerte’ is a cross between the native Mexican and Guatemalan species. It got its name from the Spanish word for strong, because it is hardy to 26°F. It has medium-sized, pear-shaped fruit with leathery skin that stays mostly green even after ripening. The creamy flesh is extremely rich with 18% oil content.
No wonder it was King of the Avocado for so long.
But what changed. Why is it that ‘Hass’ is sitting in your produce section and not ‘Fuerte’?
In the early 1900s California growers began to see the avocado’s commercial potential and began to work on improved varieties. The ‘Fuerte’ became the dominant commercial avocado and was a product of these early pioneers in avocado cultivation. In fact by the 1950’s ‘Fuerte’ accounted for more than two-thirds of the avocado production in the Golden State.
As I said, ‘Hass’ was discovered in the early 1930’s and patented by Rudolph Hass in 1935. But it wasn’t catching on. In fact the whole concept of a patent for a tree was a rather new concept and Mr. Hass never saw huge commercial success for his self-named avocado. His widow died in her 90s, still living off his pension as a postal worker.
As delicious and durable as the thick-skinned ‘Hass’ was, it had a big disadvantage in the eyes of consumers at that time. The ‘Hass’ turns almost black when ripe. To avocado eaters of that era this fact was a big turn off.
It took the advent of large-scale production and transportation methods in the 1970s for growers to see the potential of the ‘Hass’. Marketing pros got involved, blah, blah, blah…. It took some getting used to but consumers eventually embraced the ‘Hass’, despite it’s unappealing exterior and it replaced the ‘Fuerte’ as the leading California variety.
Today, the ‘Hass’ accounts for about 80 percent of all avocados consumed in the entire world. It generates more than $1 billion a year in revenues in the U.S. And it all started with one tree planted by a postman in his own backyard.
That tree eventually did die. Some mementos and trinkets have been fashioned from its wood and they remain all that is left of a California dream come true.
But whatever became of the ‘Fuerte’? Well fortunately for us, California still produces plenty of this delicious avocado. I buy it whenever I see it. And whenever I do I think about its lost place at the top of the avocado heap and feel a bit of kinship with it because its story and that of its cousin ‘Hass’ is just the kind of full-fledged geekiness that I love.
SERIOUS FUN FOOD