Fruit detective David Karp writes about produce for the Los Angeles Times and Gourmet. He talked with Lynne about his picks for the best mail-order fruit for the 1999 holiday season.

Lynne: What are your suggestions for mail-order fruit this holiday season?
David: Most people are familiar with the large mail-order places that send out a million catalogs, but I prefer to buy from smaller operations where the produce is grown and packed with a personal touch. Often they sell exquisitely delicious products that are too fragile to be grown and shipped commercially. I like to talk to the farmer or their family when I order, and find out what's good, and when the fruit will be at its peak. For example, I just got off the phone this morning with George Cunningham of Cunningham Organic Farm in DeLuz, a little agricultural Shangri-La nestled in a valley next to the Cleveland National Forest between Los Angeles and San Diego. There are tons of Texan and Floridian growers who sell gift boxes of regular grapefruit, but George and his wife Gale sell cocktail grapefruit, which are an experimental cross between pummelo and sweet orange devised by breeders at the University of California at Riverside.
They're so sweet, juicy and tender that they can't be shipped commercially, but they're so good farmers grow them to eat themselves and to sell at farmers markets. George is the only one I know who sells them by mail order, from mid-December on, perfect timing for Christmas gifts.

Lynne: What about other citrus?
David: I can't rave enough about the satsumas produced by Ralene Snow of Snow's Citrus Court, which grows at three small groves in Newcastle and Auburn, northeast of Sacramento. Satsumas are an original form of mandarin orange, very popular in China and Japan, with looser skin and more delicate flesh than clementines. They have some of the flowery, slightly spicy taste you get from canned mandarin oranges, but of course much finer because they're fresh. Many Californians know them well, but they're rare at most American markets, because they're so delicate and don't store well. Ralene says they have a bumper crop this year. Thanks heavens, because in peak season, from late November through the end of December, they're so addictive I can eat several pounds a day by myself.

Lynne: What else is in prime season now?
David: Although most dates are harvested in late summer and fall, as dried or semi-dried fruits they keep well. Robert Lower of Flying Disc Ranch of Thermal has the world's most insanely luscious dates, rutab-stage organic Barhis so soft that eating one is like biting into a sugary cloud. Lower wryly calls them "wretched excess"; he prefers dry Deglet Noors, though he also has superb Dayri, Deglet Noor and Zahidi dates, which he mostly sells at the Santa Monica Wednesday Farmers Market. He grows them in Thermal, in the Coachella Valley, in the desert southeast of Palm Springs, where the weather was perfect last summer for maturing dates: 108 to 112 degrees every day. In 1998 the quality suffered because of rains and cold weather, but this year the crop is excellent. If you're looking for Medjool dates, which make the most impressive gifts, Four Apostles has huge, soft and translucent Medjools. They're organic, too.

Lynne: What do you recommend for dried fruit?
David: You may remember that we've spoken about Pluots, the new plum-apricot hybrids that combine the best features of both fruits. My friend Steve Brenkwitz sells packages of eight mixed varieties: purple, yellow, red, orange and green kinds. Most are sweet and tart at the same time, with a range of different flavors. You won't find these at a supermarket, and they're often made from the ripest fruit, which are too delicate to ship, so they dry them instead. But my favorite source of all is Art Lange, a retired professor of weed science from UC-Davis who grows the best peaches and nectarines in the San Joaquin Valley, and sells at the Santa Monica and San Francisco Ferry Plaza farmers markets. He grows many older and heirloom varieties that are rich in flavor, though they may not look as pretty as modern commercial varieties. Art had developed a way of slicing fruit really thin, adding only a little natural fruit juice as a
preservative, and placing it on wire screens to dry in the fierce sun of the Central Valley. It dries quickly, so get the incredibly intense flavor of the best varieties, super-ripe. Some of the prices range up to $30 a pound for varieties like Cashmere, a yellow nectarine of which he only has three trees. But this dried fruit is a unique, ultra-premium item.

David Karp's Recommendations for
Holiday Fruit Mail-Order Sources

Applesource (Tom and Jill Vorbek)
Apples, available Oct. 25 to Jan. 10; some varieties sell out early. Sampler pack of 12 or more antique and modern apples, $24. Customer selected variety packs (two to six varieties), $24 plus shipping in some cases.
1716 Apples Road
Chapin, IL 62628
800-588-3854 or 217-245-589
Accepts Visa, Mastercard and Discover.

Cunningham Organic Farms (Gale and George Cunningham)
Organic specialty citrus. Cocktail grapefruit, from mid-December on, $21 for a box of 18 to 36 fruit, about 30 to 35 pounds, plus shipping. Also Fremont mandarins; later, blood oranges, other mandarins.
P.O. Box 1522
Fallbrook, CA 92088
tel. 760-728-7343

Eden Garden (Steve Brenkwitz)
Dried Pluots. Box of eight mixed varieties of Pluots, 5 pounds for $20, plus shipping.
3707 West Kenner Rd
Tracy, CA 95376
Accepts Visa and Mastercard.

Four Apostles' Ranch (Bradley and Rosalind Milliken)
Organic Medjool dates. Jumbo (the largest size): $32 for a 2-pound tin, plus $5.50 shipping. Large (next biggest): $24 for 2-pound bag, , plus $5.50 shipping; or $47 for 6 pounds, plus $6 shipping; or $90 for 12 pounds, plus $9.75 shipping.
80-700 Ave. 38
Bermuda Dunes, CA 92203

Flying Disc Ranch (Robert Lower)
Organic dates. Medjool ($5 a pound); Barhi ($4 a pound), Deglet Noor, Zahidi and Dayri ($5 a pound), plus shipping. Most varieties available in both soft (rutab) and dried (tamar) stages. Also date pieces and coconut rolls. Shipped in containers of 1 1/2, 2, 3, 4 and 15 pounds.
P.O. Box 201
Thermal, CA 92274
760-399-5313 (Mr. Lower can be difficult to reach on the phone, but says he's buying an answering machine.)

Honeycrisp (Art Lange)
Unsulphured, thinly sliced, premium dried stone fruit. Apricots ($8/pound); Arctic Rose, Snow Queen and May Diamond nectarines ($16/pound ends, $20/pound flat pieces); Arctic Glo white nectarines, Cashmere yellow nectarines and Nectar white peaches $30/pound.
9400 S. Lac Jac
Reedley, CA 93654
Call or mail request for complete price sheet.

Logoluso Family Farms
Pink Lady apples. Box of 23 Pink Lady apples, $29.95 plus shipping; includes stainless-steel corer-slicer.
7567 Road 28
Madera, CA 93637
Accepts Visa, Mastercard, American Express and Discover.

C.J. Olsen Cherries (Deborah Olsen)
Chilean cherries, available Nov. 20 - Jan. 10. Fancy row-packed Chilean Bing cherries: 3 pounds, $34; 5 pounds, $59.95; 10 pounds, $100. Regular pack: 3-pound mixed box of Bings and Rainiers, or 3-pound box of Rainiers, $39.95; 6-pound mixed box of Bings and Rainiers, or 6-pound box of Rainiers, $65. Shipping additional.
Matilda & El Camino Real
Sunnyvale, CA
800-738-2464 or 408-736-3726
Accepts Visa, Mastercard and American Express.

Snow's Citrus Court (Ralene and Larry Snow)
Transitional organic Owari satsumas, available mid-November through late December. $15 for 10 pounds and $31 for 25 pounds, plus shipping.
P.O. Box 1316
Newcastle, CA 95658
Accepts Visa, Mastercard and Discover.

Tree-Mendus Fruit Orchards (Herb and Liz Teichman)
More than 200 varieties of apples. 12-pound "U-Pick" Heritage Apple Sampler, up to 8 varieties, $34.95; 7-pound "U-Pick" Heritage Apple Sampler, up to 4 varieties, $19.95; not available in California, Hawaii or New Mexico.
9351 East Eureka Road
Eau Claire, MI 49111
877-863-3276 or 616-782-7101.
www.tree-mendus.com and www.treemendus-fruit.com.
Accepts Visa and Mastercard.

Web Sites featuring Mail-Order Citrus Sources
Florida gift fruit shippers: www.floridajuice.com/floridacitrus/FDOC/giftreg.htm
Texas gift fruit shippers: aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/citrus/shippers.htm