By Rowan Jacobsen, "Avocado Heaven,"March/April 2010
On a jade-tinted hillside in the lush southwestern Mexican state of Michoacán, Chef Rick Bayless held up an avocado as if it were sacred. He halved the avocado around its equator with a penknife, which is how growers check for ripeness, and discovered that this particular specimen was spot on. He could tell by the way the bright-green flesh near the skin paled to yolk-yellow near the pit. An avocado that is green to the pit will taste grassy, he told me. If it’s yellow at the core, it’ll be creamy as custard, rich as ricotta.
The avocado looked like a snowglobe-size model of its surroundings: green hills, yellow fields and dark-domed peaks. This fruit, here in its native land, was one with its environment. Which might have explained the look on Bayless’s face. Bayless is, among other things, the chef responsible for introducing many Americans to authentic Mexican cuisine, as well as one of the strongest voices in the sustainable-food movement. As executive chef of Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and the recently opened Xoco in Chicago, some of the top Mexican restaurants in the U.S., Bayless has seen a lot of avocados in his life, which means he has seen all too many bad avocados. But he was staring at this one with something passingly close to love. And I admit, I was starting to feel it too. Because I had traveled here, with him, to find out why Hass avocados from this little corner of the world are so damn good.
The answer was all around us. Avocados in this valley are so rich because they are born to wealth. The highlands of Michoacán, 200 miles west of Mexico City, are rimmed by towering, flat-topped volcanoes—1,350 in all. Millions of years of eruptions filled the valley with sweet, productive, mineral-rich soil, and the avocado tree pumps all those nutrients into its fruit. Most fruits are primarily sugar, but an avocado is mostly fat—heart-healthy, monounsaturated fat. A fully ripened Michoacán avocado can have a fat content of 30 percent.
Such production takes tremendous quantities of water, which isn’t a problem in this semitropical paradise. From May to October, the mountains are drenched in rain. What doesn’t get sucked up by the trees trickles into the porous aquifer, resurfacing in the sparkling rivers that lace the region. Cisterns in the orchards catch the water to supply the trees during the dry season.
Unlike any other avocado region in the world, avocado trees in Michoacán bloom twice, and it’s not unusual to see fruit and flowers on the same tree. With temperatures softly oscillating between 50° and 80°F, trees can choose their schedule; there’s no killer frost hanging over the day planner. It takes an avocado about 12 months to mature, but it won’t soften until picked; if left on the tree, it will continue to put on fat for an additional six months. It doesn’t just stay good; it gets better. Mountainous Michoacán, whose orchards range in altitude from 3,000 to 8,000 feet, also benefits from a multitude of microclimates. Any given week of the year, some orchard here is at the peak of ripeness. This unique flexibility allows Michoacán to ship premium, fresh-picked fruit year-round.
Due to the drought, recent California avocado harvests have been barely large enough to supply the West Coast. Michoacán supplies most of the rest of the country. In fact, Michoacán supplies nearly half the world’s avocados. More than 200,000 acres of verdant avocado orchards blanket every hill in the region. It’s the kind of success you have when you grow a crop where it wants to grow—indeed, where it has grown for thousands of years. And it’s a vital support for a state that in the past four decades has sent millions of people to the U.S. in search of work. Today 300,000 Michoacáns are directly or indirectly employed in the avocado industry. The graceful, colonial-era cities bustle with shops and shoppers, and the tables in the street markets groan under the weight of freshly harvested fruits, vegetables, herbs and fish.
After a day spent shopping those markets, Chef Bayless was inspired to make me a batch of guacamole. It’s hard to improve on the Aztecs’ original ahuaca-mulli, or “avocado sauce,” made of mashed avocados, chiles, tomatoes and onions, but Bayless may have done it with his roasted garlic guacamole topped with tasty garnishes like crisp bacon and toasted pumpkin seeds. The avocados he used had lovely hints of pine nuts and fennel. “Avocados don’t have a bold taste, but they have a complex one,” he explained. “It can be really fun to play around with different ingredients and see how they bring out different aspects of that complexity.”
Bayless’s comment stuck with me as I watched him cook. He used avocados to thicken salsa verde and to add richness to sopa de tortilla. a staple of Mexican cuisine. Later, when he concocted a sweet and luscious avocado ice cream it struck me that the avocado is nature’s emulsifier par excellence. Thousands of years before the invention of margarine or mayonnaise, the avocado tree had already figured out how to whip healthy unsaturated oil into a stable and spreadable paste. From creamy soups to decadent desserts, it has excelled in that role ever since, allowing all of us to savor the fat of the land.
Rowan Jacobsen is the James Beard Award-winning author of A Geography of Oysters, Fruitless Fall, The Living Shore and American Terroir, to be released in September.
Chef-restaurateur, cookbook author and television personality Rick Bayless has a new book, Fiesta at Rick’s, which is due out in July.
Photo Credit (Rick Bayless): Maren Caruso Photography