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Juju-what now? 

Rock Front Ranch's exotic superfood is good for your body and the planet

The first thing I noticed about Alisha Taff was her electric smile and bright, glowing skin. Even under the less than flattering fluorescent lights of the SLO Guild Hall, the farmer flaunted an inner radiance that belied her age.

click to enlarge SUPER GOOD SUPERFOOD Good-for-you jujube fruit matures on the tree outside Santa Maria, far from its original home of ancient China. The trees at Rock Front Ranch, located in the Cuyama Valley, are heated by the sun each summer day and cooled by the western sea breeze each evening—which makes the fruit ready for flavorful, antioxidant-rich snacking. - PHOTO COURTESY OF ROCK FRONT RANCH
  • Photo Courtesy Of Rock Front Ranch
  • SUPER GOOD SUPERFOOD Good-for-you jujube fruit matures on the tree outside Santa Maria, far from its original home of ancient China. The trees at Rock Front Ranch, located in the Cuyama Valley, are heated by the sun each summer day and cooled by the western sea breeze each evening—which makes the fruit ready for flavorful, antioxidant-rich snacking.

Amid the commotion of local food purveyors at the Slow Money SLO meeting, her product—a mysterious dried fruit with the same name as the chewy, old-school movie candy—piqued my sense of adventure. So, I made a beeline for her stand, quickly gulping down a paper cup of tea spiked with fresh ginger and cinnamon. Shockingly, I learned that this delicious beverage contained no added sugar—just the juicy-sweet flavor of her crop, a humble Chinese superfruit with a 4,000-year-old history.

I asked if this was, in fact, the secret to her vibrant energy and clear eyes.

Taff confirmed my suspicion with a flattered smile, quick to back up her health claims with facts (it's all in her pamphlet, aptly titled, "JuJu What?"). According to ancient Chinese literature, jujube fruit—commonly grown in subtropical regions of China, as well as Japan—has been curing ailments since 900 B.C. Eastern healers have long known that the fruit's leaves, roots, and pits are just as magical as its alluring flesh.

Of course, I had to venture out to Taff's Santa Maria-area ranch to get the whole picture. Packed with amino acids, high levels of vitamin C, good-for-you fatty acids, and high levels of bioactive compounds, the fruit is purported to have anti-inflammatory, immune-stimulant, and detoxifying benefits (healers will also say dry skin, stress, insomnia, poor appetite, and ulcers are no match for the fruit).

Could the Fountain of Youth be hiding in plain sight?

Located off Highway 166 East, Taff's 320-acre Rock Front Ranch sits in the gateway of the Cuyama Valley, surrounded by miles of chaparral and oak forests. I arrived on a spring day, greeted by an array of scrubby coastal plants and wildflower-strewn meadows contrasted by towering desert rock.

click to enlarge HANDFUL OF HEALTH Rich in flavonoids and phenols, these plum-like dried jujube fruits taste faintly of apple and showcase a complexity of phytonutrients. - PHOTO BY HAYLEY THOMAS CAIN
  • Photo By Hayley Thomas Cain
  • HANDFUL OF HEALTH Rich in flavonoids and phenols, these plum-like dried jujube fruits taste faintly of apple and showcase a complexity of phytonutrients.

Famous for its rich soil, the Cuyama Valley is heated by the sun each summer day and cooled by the western sea breeze each evening. These diurnal temperature variations encourage the maximum production of sugars for optimum sweetness of the tree-ripened fruit. If this sounds a lot like wine grapes in Paso Robles' Templeton Gap, you're totally onto something.

What I found at Rock Front Ranch were 750 happy, thorny jujube tees adorned with ultra-glossy green leaves (another thousand trees live at a nearby ranch). Branches were just beginning to break into perky buds as I snapped photos and peppered Taff with questions. Now, in June, those green buds have ripened into mature plum-sized orbs, or "drupes," as they're called in the biz.

Like all great ag stories, the heart of this tale lies in the terroir. Located about 40 miles from the ocean, the soil here is a sandy loam bolstered by a little clay. A wet winter and spring has turned the previously drought-stricken earth a bright green, but that's not the usual. Taff's jujubes survived years of hot, dry conditions with incredible grace. Sturdy and vigorous, jujubes require little from the land while producing bushels of output.

"A little stress actually increases their flavor and antioxidant properties," Taff said, adding that they have no known pests, disease, or insect predators (that means no need for pesticides—not that she'd ever use any). Yes, even the deer, mountain lions, and bears stay away from these thorns.

The idea out here, I soon learned, is proactive, not reactive, farming. The farmer is interested in regenerative agriculture and sustainability—a huge factor when you are in an area with limited resources.

"This soil, this terroir, is not the same as right on the coast. Out here, you have to be selective about what you grow and how you conserve resources, especially with water," Taff said. "That's really what got me into the jujubes."

A well on the property and a natural creek provide supplemental moisture in the summer, and micro-sprinklers spritz the plants in the evenings (only about 10 inches of extra water is needed per year). The soil is amended with homemade compost deliberately cultivated to sequester carbon from the air and encourage the growth of good fungi and bacteria. Cows on the property help on the manure front, and, for the most part, Taff has an incredibly sustainable operation.

Each tree can give about 50 to 100 drupes per harvest, and Taff isn't thrilled about climbing ladders, so she cuts the trees down to a manageable height.

All this love goes into these jujubes so that the fruit can, in turn, love us back.

As it turns out, "Zizyphus jujuba" isn't magic, it's nature. According to a 2005 L.A. Times article, scientists have been studying the jujube's promising anti-cancer and anti-Alzheimer properties for years.

click to enlarge QUEEN JUJUBE Farmer Alisha Taff of Rock Front Ranch is growing an unusual and exotic crop on her Cuyama Valley property. - PHOTO BY HAYLEY THOMAS CAIN
  • Photo By Hayley Thomas Cain
  • QUEEN JUJUBE Farmer Alisha Taff of Rock Front Ranch is growing an unusual and exotic crop on her Cuyama Valley property.

There is no question: Jujubes are incredibly good for you, no matter how you consume them (I recommend Taff's dried jujube skewer with salami and veg, which showcases the fruit's uniquely chewy insides and shiny, snappy skin).

The dried fruit is totally addictive, with an airy feel that smacks of sweet date (eat plain, tuck into deserts, or add to a toasted crostini smeared with ricotta and cranberries). Fresh, the jujube is crisp like an apple and refreshing when sliced into a salad.

Although Rock Front Ranch produces both dried and fresh jujube fruit, I'd say the dried is their specialty, which you can find at SLO Natural Foods Co-Op, Whole Foods, and through SLO Veg, to name a few.

This, as it turns out, is the old-school way to enjoy Taff's crop.

"Imagine a life without Tupperware or refrigeration. How are you going to store your fresh food? You can only eat so much before vermin are going to get into your store," Taff said. "The answer is to allow the jujube to dry on the branch. Not only do they keep, but they also keep their nutritional value."

Want fresh skin and boundless energy? Try a handful a day and see what happens. In China today, jujube fruit represents a massive agricultural output, even as Americans continue to scratch their heads and say, "juju-what?"

Like pink pitaya and Brazilian acai before that, could this nutritional powerhouse be next it-superfood? If Taff has her way, perhaps. She's here to fight for the little guy, the outsider, the hard-to-pronounce fruit from far-flung foreign place. Further inspection of her property revealed more thorny gems: unique Russian olives and rare kei apples native to South Africa.

"These kei apples are not really supposed to grow here; it gets a little too cold, but I planted them and here they are. They are like the most delicate apricot you've ever had," she gushed. "Bringing awareness to foods from other cultures, like the jujube, and showcasing just why they're important ... that's what it's all about."

Four-thousand years later, Hayley Thomas Cain wonders why it took her so long to find the amazing, snackable, addicting jujube. She can be reached at hthomas@newtimesslo.com.


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