In Search of Southern California’s Most Perfect Avocado
A few years ago en route to camping in Yosemite my friend Chris and I took a road trip to the town of Carpenteria, outside of Santa Barbara, to go avocado-picking with a man I kept referring to as “the Avocado Whisperer”.
Robert Abbott is the owner of Hilltop Canyon Farms— a beautiful coffee, citrus, and avocado farm just north of Oprah’s house in one of the most verdant waterfront stretches of southern California. The drive to Abbott’s ranch on Highway 101 looked like Eden– palm trees dotted the highway, multi-million dollar Spanish-brick mansions overlooked the ocean at every turn. The farm was green and idyllic as we drove up– citrus fruits overwhelmed the bows in the orange grove and avocado trees cast squat shadows as we emerged from the car and watched the dust we had kicked up settle on the tires. A tabby cat crawling across the seat of a tractor that was parked under an old tree was our only company until Abbott emerged from his toolshed.
It was a typically hott Southern California day in April. Like Abbott, my friend and I were both sweaty– but unlike Abbott, our hands were clean; his were caked with almost indescribable layers of dirt, the kind of soil-under-the-fingernails grit that distinguishes real farmers from us wannabe land-adventurers.
Prior to our arrival I kept referring to Abbott as the “Avocado Whisperer” because, when we had spoken on the phone prior to our arrival, he was super knowledgable about avocados and the nuanced “superfood” market that lead to America’s obsession with this fruit. Apparently, avocados are priced not unlike stocks in the Dow Jones– each morning, there are speculators who drive around to the major avocado farms in the Southern California (most of which exist in an around Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo) and “set” a market price for those avocados that are purchased for mass distribution (unlike, say, the majority of avocados at Abbott’s farm, which are mostly sold at local farmers markets).
Avocados, I learned, were like snowflakes: no two of them are alike. There are creamier, rounder South-American varieties and the famous, iconically “green” avocados native to Mexico, many of which are of the Hass variety– a cultivar of avocado with dark green, bumpy skin which has become popular in the United States. Like bananas, avocados that are picked prematurely for mass distribution to supermarkets are artificially ripened in gas chambers filled with ethanol, which expedites the ripening process. At Hilltop Canyon, however, the avocados are ripened on the tree; this contributes to their exquisitely rich flavor, and it’s the reason why I dragged my friend away from the beach so that we could come to this farm. “A lot of people in Santa Barbara go wine tasting, but what about avocado picking?” I had argued.
“I have a dream that people would go around and do ‘avocado tastings’ in the same way that people do wine tastings,” Abbott told us that afternoon, pausing beneath a 100-year-old avocado tree to pluck a ripe fruit from its branches. With deft precision he removed a pocket knife from his belt and cut us each a slice of creamy fruit. To this day, it was one of the best avocados I’ve ever had (but you probably already knew I was going to say that).
Chris, my accomplice, was curious about how the California drought was affecting Abbott’s crops (the farm, which doubles as an incredibly idyllic Air BnB on a coffee plantation, also grows citrus, in addition to its signature avocados). “It actually hasn’t had a huge affect yet,” he told us, which was only mildly surprising to me back in 2013, when the drought wasn’t yet at its peak. “You have to remember: this is a fruit that came to Southern California from Mexico, so it’s used to drought conditions.” The bigger problem, he later explained, were pests and meeting the year-round demand for avocados. (Americans, like Californians, are obsessed with avocados.)
“It was a beautiful scene, the three of us strolling through the avocado grove and into the citrus fields, marveling at the centurion trees that had been in Abbott’s family for generations and eating avocados at will.”
In the course of the next few hours we strolled the farm learning about the nuances of various cultivars (unlike the Hall, Mexicola Grande, and Anahaim varieties, only Hass avocados are grown year-round, which is why they seem to have the most brand-recognition). It was a beautiful scene, the three of us strolling through the avocado grove and into the citrus fields, marveling at the centurion trees that had been in Abbott’s family for generations and eating avocados at will. We looked at leaf specimens and some of the budding new cultivars (above) that Abbott was growing. As we prepared to leave, Abbott loaded us up with a new fruit he was excited about growing: Cherimoyas, a pear-like cross between an apple and creme brulee that Mark Twain once referred to as “the most delicious fruit known to man”. Known in farmers’ circles as the “custard apple”, Cherimoyas are another South American fruit, and their growing felt not out-of-place amongst the citrus, coffee, and avocados grown elsewhere on Abbott’s farm.
Later that night, in front of a campfire in Yosemite Valley, Chris and I ate the second Cherimoya hungrily, reflecting on our beautiful day spent in the sun picking avocados. The drive was long and beautiful, but we still couldn’t get over the majesty of the farm at Hilltop Canyon. “That must be such an awesome lifestyle, living on a farm like that,” he said, reflecting on Abbott’s chipper demeanor and the deliciousness of his avocados. “The trees were so beautiful, and that whole experience was just so….awesome.” He paused for a second, gazing into the crackling fire before us. “That was a perfect way to spend an afternoon”.