The Legendary Duke Avocado, Part Deux

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Duke Avocado Trees: Old Oroville Depot
An avocado tree that can not only withstand freezing conditions but laugh in the face of a one Mr. Jack Frost himself? An avocado that offers a higher oil content than the Hass? An avocado variety that can withstand root rot conditions that have doomed other trees in the Bird Back 40? Say it ain't so! I must have one!

Consider this a followup to a journey that started many moons ago during that one night where I could not sleep. I was desperately seeking Susan, err, for an avocado variety that could withstand our colder than cold Northern California winters. It was that night that I discovered the Duke, its ability to withstand freezing winter temperatures and its interesting history, which I wrote about several months ago.

Introductory Garden: Old Oroville Depot
The posting about the Duke has generated the largest response from readers since Venus and I painted a beehive Hello Kitty pink and proceeded to get stung silly while attempting to become amateur beekeepers. That's a good word: Amateur. Another good word is foolhardy. But I digress.

The quest to grow an avocado tree in our micro-climate cold North Natomas Back 40 by reaching back into Northern California history to grab a bit of the past has been an interesting journey indeed. My singular attempt to bring this 100-year old variety called the "Duke" into the present day has now grown to involve the efforts of several growers, some connected with California Rare Fruit Growers (CRFG) and some not.

First Graft Attempt: FAIL!
When I signed off on the last posting, I was attempting to graft Duke scions onto three different avocado root stocks provided by David Johnson, an avocado aficionado who has painstakingly turned his Waterford backyard into a rain forest-like shrine to all things citrus. If you think "you can't grow that here," David is probably growing it, and growing it successfully.

And now? The rest of the story.

I suck at grafting. I really do. It's a skill that I've not yet acquired, despite some early grafting success that I experienced last spring with my pluot and plum trees. Grafting stone fruit scions to other stone fruit trees is MUCH easier than grafting citrus, a painful lesson I would learn after watching every single avocado graft I attempted curl up, turn a none-too-pleasant shade of black and DIE.

After watching my repeated grafting attempts fail and fail and fail again, nearly destroying three avocado root stocks in the process, fate would smile upon me rather fondly. A fellow avocado NUTCASE like me learned of my struggles and advised: "Contact Sam."


Venus Beneath Monster Duke Avocado Trees
"Sam" is actually a nickname for a one Samad Janfeshan, who lives in a quiet Arden Oaks Vista neighborhood. I would later come to find out that Sam is quite famous, provided one of your primary languages is Persian. I am told he still takes phone calls from all areas of Europe and the Middle East thanks to his knowledge and experience in the field of all things horticulture. As I would come to find out, Sam employed a highly successful grafting technique learned while tending the family ranch in Iran.

How did "Sam" get from an orchard in central Iran to Sacramento? That's a story even more interesting than his grafting technique and a backyard that is a shrine to his marvelous grafting abilities. Like many Iranian citizens, Sam was fortunate enough to attend our institutions of higher education in California. Unfortunately for Sam, during this particular period in time, things got a little crazy in his home country.

Ayatollah Khomeini
It was during this time that the Shah would be overthrown, the U.S. embassy would be raided and hundreds taken hostage and a figure known as the Ayatollah would come to power. Overnight, a once-staunch U.S. ally in the Middle East would become decidedly anti-American. Sam, who watched events unfold from the safety of California, decided he wanted no part of the new direction his country was headed in and worked to become a citizen of the United States. He would give up the farm, but never lose his love for fruit trees and other horticultural endeavors.

I am more than fortunate to be steered in this man's direction. He saw the troubles I was having. He scolded me silly for my amateurish grafting attempts and proceeded to teach me a skin-grafting technique that I've never seen performed before. It's a technique that has resulted in multiple plum, mulberry and other fruit tree offerings that grace the family backyard. Yet, you will find none of these varieties at your local nursery. You will, however, find them in Iran.

Duke Avocado Leaves: Brilliant Yellowish Green
It suddenly struck me that if Sam could successfully grow fruit trees native to Iran in the backyard of his Sacramento home, he could probably solve my grafting problems with the Duke Avocado. Call that a rather fair assumption. Every graft Sam attempted survived. Three sorry looking avocado root stocks have been transformed into legendary Duke Avocado trees.

Not satisfied with his success on three trees, additional root stock was procured from a long-time member of the Sacramento Chapter of the CRFG where Sam again demonstrated his successful grafting skills. Additional Duke scion wood was also farmed out to David Johnson and other CRFG growers who are slowly bringing this heirloom avocado tree back to life.


Freshly Harvested Duke Avocados
Although I've uncovered a lot of information about the legendary Duke line and discovered old Duke trees in locations scattered throughout Butte County, one big piece remained missing from this equation. What does a Duke avocado taste like? Was this variety abandoned so long ago because it tasted like the inside of one of my old tennis shoes? I had always strongly suspected that the Duke was abandoned by commercial growers because it was a poor shipper. But I couldn't prove that. Not yet anyway.

I would have to wait for Duke season that finally arrived this month. Duke trees are alternate bearing, which means in some years you get a heavy crop of avocados and other years the pickings are slim. 2012 turned out to be one of those lean years. As I gazed into the treetops of the Duke trees in the Oroville Depot Introductory Garden earlier this month, I found what I was looking for.

Fruit Harvesting Basket for Fat People
It was also 30 feet off the ground. While I was once a champion tree climber in my youth, quite a few years have passed since then, and considerable pounds have been added to my once wiry frame. I wasn't about to scramble up a tree -- avocado or no avocado. Fortunately I had come armed with a fruit harvesting basket like the once you see pictured, plus a handy dandy telescoping handle that put the Duke fruit well within my reach.

I can't begin to describe the joy and satisfaction I felt as I pulled that very first piece of fruit off this heirloom tree and brought it slowly downward. Months of reading, research and phone calls had finally resulted in this moment. Upon grabbing my first Duke avocado, I brought it up close to my ear and gave it a vigorous shake. This was the final test. If this was truly a Duke avocado, the seed would be loose inside the piece of fruit. You can imagine my smile when I heard that tell-tale "thunk-thunk-thunk" sound as the seed bounced around inside.

Loose Seed Pit: Duke Avocado
That tell-tale sign of seed thumping plus the thin green skin confirmed, finally, that this was the Duke Avocado. What was once lost had been found again. After pulling 20-25 avocados from the largest of the two Duke trees in the Oroville Depot, I departed for a nice lunch in the Western Pacific Brewing Company before embarking for home.


The first true taste-test of the Duke avocado would take place later that night as I presented the Duke haul to the avocado snob that is the wife that is Venus. The wife that is Venus knows her avocados. The wife that is Venus also has her own avocado TOOL for removing seeds and skins from the precious fruit. I would come to discover that this tool is useless with Duke avocado. It's designed for working with thicker-skinned varieties like the Haas, Mexicola and Fuerte.

Duke Avocado: Right-Hass Avocado: Left
As I watched Venus slice into the first of the Duke fruits, the first wave of doubt washed over me. This wasn't a soft, smooth, creamy avocado. Not hardly. The first taste of the Duke fruit confirmed the worst of my fears. It featured the consistency of a crunchy apple. It was also quite tasteless. What had gone wrong? Had I picked it too early? Was the Duke abandoned because it had the consistency of a rock?

Color me disappoint.

It was a few days later when I received a message from gardening friend Nels Christensen, who I had gifted with four Duke avocados. He messaged me to tell me that he was in the process of making guacamole. "GUACAMOLE!" How does once make guacamole with rock hard avocados? Nels messaged back to inform me that the Dukes had softened to the point to where they were pliable.

Creamy Delicious Duke Avocados
As it turns out, my worst fears were nothing to worry about. Duke fruit does not turn soft and ripen on the tree. Duke avocados are quite hard at harvest. But after picking? They ripen VERY quickly. In two short days my collection of apple-consistency avocados had developed the consistency of a squishy sponge. They were more than ready for consumption.

I began to understand why the Duke had been labeled a "poor shipper." It ripens so fast at harvest, and turns so soft, that it would be incredibly difficult to keep these avocados from spoiling in large numbers. Growers would have been required to move boxes of fruit from field to store bins within a day or less. This effort also would have required consumers to snap up all of the fruit before it could spoil. And as I would come to find out, Duke fruit will spoil quickly once it's been harvested. That window of 48-72 hours isn't much.


My First Duke Avocado Harvest
So -- what does a Duke avocado taste like after it's been allowed to ripen? A little bit like heaven, my friend. Just a little bit like heaven. Duke avocados are creamy good -- offering a higher oil content than the Haas avocado -- which is the standard bearer in the commercial avocado market. Duke avocados also have a nutty flavor not found in the Hass and other avocados.

The skin of the Duke avocado is another treat not to be missed. Skins found on commercial avocados are much thicker and do, in fact, taste like the inside of one of my tennis shoes. But that's not the case with the Duke skins. They are fabulous and serve as a wonderful addition to consuming a piece of Duke fruit.

The Duke!
Since we had far more avocados than we knew what to do with, or eat in any one setting, Venus creamed many of them, mixed in some lime juice to keep it from spoiling, and stuck the finished product into a freezer. It will make for a nice guacamole snack during the next Super Bowl, when the 49ers destroy whatever AFC Team is foolish enough to take the field against them.

As far as the final reviews of the avocado snobs who tasted this year's fruit? I must admit -- those reviews are mixed. Nels Christensen and his wife prefer the Bacon avocado variety. Count David Johnson as a fan, as he consumed his Duke avocados with the skin still on. And as for the wife that is Venus?

The wife that is Venus is looking forward to the day when she will be able to harvest the first of many Duke avocados from her own backyard tree. And, my friends, that is really all that counts.

Soup's On!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Fresh Garden Veg-All!
As our summer days begin that ever so slow slide into that cooler interim we call "fall," it's time to take stock of what's left in the summer garden, and what's done. Although some heirloom tomato patches are still churning out fruit, our heirloom plantings pretty much petered out a solid month ago. While we still enjoy the occasional tomato or two, the bushel harvests are a distant memory.

I'm sad to see those days end. I'm never ready for the end of summer gardening season. Although there are things to plant in fall and spring, nothing offers the diversity of produce that springs from a summer garden. What is a gardener to do then, when the sudden urge for an ear of heirloom corn or a single pole bean comes on strong in the dead of winter.

Carrots from the Bird Back 40
My friends, we are prepared!

One of our favorite evening meals, especially during those weeknights after a long day at work, is a simple soup that contains ground turkey, a bit of broth, can of tomatoes and a can of Veg-All. The wife that is Venus stumbled upon this recipe some years ago, and it's been a staple in the Bird Houze ever since. Add in some freshly baked crescent rolls and you've got yourself one quick and easy supper.

This meal is that much better when you can add a can of tomatoes or tomato sauce that came straight from the Bird Back 40 the previous summer. As I took stock of what was left in the summer garden some weeks ago, it suddenly struck me, why purchase the canned vegetable stock known as "Veg-All?" Why not make your own Veg-All at home?

Leaning Towers of Pole Beans
We already know that anything fresh from the backyard is far superior than anything that can be purchased in the local supermarket. So why stop at canning projects that involve tomatoes and cucumbers? Why not put that overproductive carrot patch that would make Bugs Bunny jealous to good use? Our pole bean planting efforts now strongly resemble the Leaning Tower of Pisa. And although this year's corn crop was nothing to write home about, there was still enough there to add to the mix.

Three garden vegetables = Homemade Veg-All.

Fresh Heirloom Garden Corn
One important thing to consider before we move even further into this project is this: This project involves the use of pressure canning equipment. Water bath canners simply do not provide the pressure needed to safely can non-acidic vegetables like this, unless additional acid in the form of vinegar or lemon juice is added. At that point, you wind up with pickled vegetables rather than the canned variety. Even with our pressure canning equipment, Venus and I added a tablespoon of lemon juice to each pint jar before canning, just to play it safe.

Chopped and Ready for Processing
I must say, this has been an excellent year for carrots of all shapes and sizes in the Bird Back 40. The same holds true with the pole bean crop that we planted in July after removing a less than stellar garlic crop. The planter beds that dot the Bird Back 40 don't stay empty for very long. Once one crop is removed, the tired soil is amended and new seeds are added for the next crop.

But, I digress.

Parboil and Can
This is a much simpler project than canning tomato sauce, whole tomatoes and salsa. Those canning efforts involve a number of different steps before the actual product is added to jars and placed inside canning equipment for processing. For a simple vegetable mix like this? It's pick, clean, chop, mix together, parboil and can. The only difference is processing time -- about 45 minutes at 15 lbs. pressure. Just the simple act of processing can take several hours, especially if you have more jars of product than canning space in the pressure canning equipment.

But the payoff is a sweet treat during those cold winter months. If popping open a jar of home-canned tomatoes or tomato-sauce brings that sweet smell of summer into the kitchen, I can only begin to imagine the smells and taste that our vegetable canning efforts will bring.


1 lb. ground turkey
1 tablespoon oil
1 onion
4-5 cloves peeled garlic
1 14.5 ounce can beef broth (water and beef bullion works just as well)
1 14 ounce can whole or chopped tomatoes
1 can Veg-All
Fresh or dry herbs

Fresh Garden Veg-All
Use food processor to ground garlic into bits and cut onion into appropriate bite-sized pieces. If you don't have a food processor, use a blender, or put a butcher knife to good use and start chopping. Add onion, garlic and ground turkey to soup pot containing oil, and proceed to cook on medium high heat until meat is cooked and no longer pink.

Add beef broth, tomatoes, Veg-All and herbs of your choice (Venus uses a mix of basil, oregano, cilantro, marjoram, whatever she has handy) and bring to a boil. Simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat, or just turn the stove off and allow soup to cool slightly before serving. Pop some crescent rolls or any other role into the oven for ten minutes and serve with soup.