Farmer Andy Shaeffer holds up a bunch of locally grown, “antique” bananas. He sells them at the Santa Monica farmers market every Wednesday morning.; Credit: Leo Duran/KPCC
The bananas you can buy in stores? Blech.
Bananas come in thousands of varieties, just like apples.
But the only one widely available in stores, called the Cavendish, is the equivalent of the Red Delicious – hearty, easy to transport, looks good and is incredibly bland.
All the other delicious varieties were wiped out by diseases decades ago, or are just too hard to grow commercially in big numbers. (There’s a great NY Times article about it)
Now at the Santa Monica farmers market, however, is your first chance in years to buy local and “antique” bananas.
At the Kaoae Farms stand is Andy Shaeffer, who’s been growing these bunches at his farm in La Conchita in Ventura County.
“They’re similar to the bananas that people are used to when they travel to Hawaii or other tropical spots,” he says. “A tropical banana has a lot of flavor.”
Shaeffer lets them ripen on the tree shortly before trucking them down to the market, meaning that sugars in the fruit have plenty of time to develop.
Conventional bananas are picked when they are deep green before being shipped around the world.
Shaeffer’s bananas are much more fragile, too. They’re easily prone to bruises or split peels, which can be an aesthetic turn-off to most shoppers.
Look beyond the peel, however, and you’re treated to subtle and surprising flavors.
The day KPCC visited, he had on hand rajapuri and dwarf Brazilian bananas. Each fruit is half the length of a store-bought one.
The rajapuri had an aftertaste of lemons or passionfruit. The dwarf Brazilian is known for its apple-like taste: in this case, we thought it had hints of a Golden Delicious hidden away.
Shaeffer was close to not selling these bananas at all, in fact.
He bought a property that used to be renowned in Southern California for selling local bananas up until the early 1990s. A series of bad weather and mudslides hit that farm, however, and the owner Doug Richardson decided to close up shop.
Shaeffer bought that land about five years ago and made a deal with Richardson: try to rehabilitate the hillside to protect the farm, and attempt to grow bananas again.
“We’ve had mixed results with the weather and the location because they’re very sensitive,” he says.
They were moving the trees around the property over the course of four years to test which was the best location.
“We were just about to give up on them. I was going to give them one last year to produce, and we found a good spot!” says Shaeffer. “They’re thriving right now.”
Kaoae Farms sells at the Santa Monica farmers market every Wednesday from 8:30 a.m to 1:30 p.m.