Want to join the fun? There’s one more Edible Excursions tour planned for this season – an April 2nd visit to Callaghan Vineyards and Dos Cabezas Wineworks, along with a tour of the YWCA’s YW Cafe community program and a visit to the Harris Heritage Growers farm just north of Sonita. To learn more about this upcoming tour and reserve your spot, visit our Edible Excursions page today!
Early on the morning of Sunday March 20th, a group of around 30 guests met at Mission Garden in Tucson. The group was a part of Edible Baja Arizona’s third Edible Excursions tour, exploring the local food system of Baja Arizona and the people that keep it alive. Our group was decked out in typical Southern Arizona fashion: Western-inspired sunhats, billowy button-downs and hiking boots.
If you haven’t been to Mission Garden in Tucson, it’s a place to see. Mission Garden’s bright green lime, orange, fig, pomelo, and kumquat trees were as awakening as the steaming Exo Coffee I sipped to start off the day.
Sunday’s trip was titled “Sonoran Sojourn to Heritage Orchards,” but it proved to be much more than that. The day was, for many of us, a trip back in time. A trip back to when perennial streams flowed and water could be diverted to feed small crop fields and backyard orchards.
Unfortunately, the development and groundwater pumping that decimated Tucson’s water table 100 years ago is happening today in Sonora. A combination of a growing population and increased agricultural demand is exacerbating water resources in the area. The Mexican greenhouse industry is growing faster than any other, allowing tomatoes to be grown year-round close to the United States port of entry in Nogales.1 Placing these greenhouses in the Sonoran desert’s climate instead of wetter Southern Mexico is in direct contrast to the intensive process of controlled environment agriculture, and increases water demand in the area.
The tour was led by Jesús García of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and the Kino Heritage Fruit Trees Project. As we headed south toward the Arizona-Mexico border, Jesus pointed to the Tumacácori Mountains, one of the only places that the wild chiltepin grows. The chiltepin is the round, button-sized pepper that is a staple in Tucson gardens. It is also the only wild chile native to the U.S.
“The bottom line here is a sense of place, said García, speaking on the popularity of returning to traditional ways of living. “What is Tucson now and what will it be? We have to connect with viejitos and viejitas, the old-timers, to see.”
Junipers and oaks popped up as we headed out of Mariposa into Sonora’s endless mountains. We stopped by a small stand by the road to buy some bellotas, acorns from the Emory oak with minimal tannins, thus avoiding the bitterness traditionally associated with acorns. Jesús demonstrated the rotating and biting technique of shell-cracking indicative of a native Sonoran.
Our first stop was at the fruit orchard of Casimiro Sánchez in the town of San Ignacio. The orchard is watered by a canal built in the late 1600’s to power a local wheat mill. We smelled a sweet perfumey Mexican lime, unlike any lime I have ever tasted.
In a typical lush Sonoran orchard, we all stopped for lunch, a siesta and music near the riverbed. Doña Chata, who is in her late 90s, hosted us in her family’s backyard. I had soy ceviche on tostadas, and capirotada (bread pudding with nuts, barrel cactus candy and piloncillo syrup from sugar cane). I got the chance make soft, golden tortillas on a hot comal over a smoking fire. Corridos from local Tucson band Ronstadt Generations followed. My favorite was a slow, comedic song titled “I Love Tortillas” to the tune of a classic Mexican corrido.
We even had the pleasure of trying some of Doña Chata’s cajeta de membrillo, a paste made from local quince fruit. Sonora has long been recognized for producing the sweet, tangy paste. You can read more about quince and its uses in Bill Steen’s piece, “Quintessentially Quince,” which ran in Edible Baja Arizona’s November/December 2013 issue.
Our last stop was Magdalena de Kino, home of the body of Father Eusebio Kino, the Jesuit missionary and explorer who began his travels across Sonora in 1687.2 Walking through the plaza, I certainly felt like I was in another time period, and another world at that. We moseyed around Magdalena to shop and I made the fantastic choice of stopping by a street vendor for a refresco, sweet shaved ice topped with fresh mango.
When we at last headed out to cross the border and drive back home, we had no idea what was ahead of us. It was a holiday weekend, and we ended up waiting three hours at a slow crawl in line in Nogales. I hopped off the bus to stretch my legs and grab some snacks at a nearby bodega. By the time I returned, beer and tequila were being passed around and the Ronstadt crew was playing tunes from the back of the bus. Needless to say, the time flew by.
The takeaway message from our Sonoran Excursion was clear: in order to look forward in time, you must also look to the past. We saw how a fruit tree orchard is possible to grow in our own backyards. Our techniques may vary from those used in Sonora, thanks to water harvesting, but the rewards will far surpass the difficulties.
I encourage you to join Edible Baja Arizona’s next Edible Excursions tour. The trip was far more than I anticipated, and I loved every minute of it. The next Excursion is to Sonoita and Elgin, where you will tour two of Southern Arizona’s finest wineries surrounded by rolling grass hills at the base of Mount Wrightson, visit the Harris Heritage Growers family farm, and discover the amazing program that is changing lives at the YW Cafe in Tucson.
And of course, you will be sipping wine at an elevation 10 degrees cooler than Tucson.
There’s one more Edible Excursions tour planned for this season – an April 2nd visit to Callaghan Vineyards and Dos Cabezas Wineworks, along with a tour of the YWCA’s YW Cafe community program and a visit to the Harris Heritage Growers farm just north of Sonita. To learn more about this upcoming tour and reserve your spot, visit our Edible Excursions page today!
1. Linda Calvin and Roberta Cook, “North American Greenhouse Tomatoes Emerge as a Major Market Force“
2. Eusebio Kino Wikipedia page.