Mann Packing details work on new Caulilini baby cauliflower line
Have you met Caulilini? The packaged baby cauliflower florets made their debut in June at the United Fresh Produce Association’s 2019 Convention & Expo in Chicago.
But the project started three and half years before, at a somewhat less auspicious gathering: A typical end-of-season barbecue in Salinas, California. René Beussen, the owner of Aruba Seed Co., brought along some baby cauliflower florets to serve at the barbecue.
The baby cauliflower florets were distinctive because they had longer stems, which were tasty and turned green when cooked. Some Asian cauliflower varieties show similar traits, but still have shorter, white stems and aren’t adapted to be grown in the arid American Southwest. Beussen’s own cauliflower florets were the result of natural plant breeding.
“We found it in a field of mine,” he said. “At that time, it was considered like an off-type.” But after several other crosses, he had some varieties worth considering and some florets to bring to the barbecue.
Rick Harris, Mann Packing’s director of growing operations, tasted them. Mann Packing, which was acquired by Del Monte Fresh Produce in 2018, had reason to be interested. The company had earlier released a baby broccoli product, Brocolini. In the tight-knit world of the Salinas vegetable industry, Harris’ college roommate, Mike Costa of Costa Family Farms, is one of Mann Packing’s largest growers. The two are often collaborating on new products.
“We’re always looking for something new, something different,” Harris said. “We’re always experimenting with different varieties, whether its kohlrabi, broccoli, cauliflower, different lettuces, different types of romaine (lettuces). We’re always asking, ‘How can we improve ourselves?’
“We’re always trying to better ourselves, and to better ourselves with new product.’”
Getting Caulilini to grow correctly was a bit of a challenge. Pests (thrips, lygus and root maggot larvae) were a challenge, as well as fertilization. Light exposure also had to be watched carefully.
“It takes more time and energy to make sure you’re not having issues,” Harris said. “As long as you’re on top of your game, there are issues, but not problems, because you can recognize it before it’s a problem.”
Compared to a traditional head of cauliflower, the Caulilini is a bit of a shaggy dog, with florets flopping outward — this helps light reach the stems and give them their color and flavor. Harris calls it an “open-face cauliflower.”
“The head material is open and loose, and has kind of a golden cast, blond, cream color” he said. “I get the light to filter though the head material, and that’s where I get my green enhancement.”
The plant’s maturity of ripeness occurs when the head fully expands. The sweetest florets have a purple cast as opposed to a blond or cream color, Harris said.
“It’s a light purple on one or two florets in an entire head … that’s a good thing, not a bad thing,” Harris said.
Caulilini is hand-harvested because the plant is very fragile. The taller florets make it easier to reach down and harvest, he said.
The Caulilini product was released for foodservice in the summer of 2018, before the 10-ounce retail packs debuted at the United Fresh Produce Association’s expo.
“Caulilini baby cauliflower was an immediate hit with our foodservice customers when we introduced it last year due to its unique look, flavor and versatility,” Rick Russo, Mann’s vice president, said in a news release. “Consumers have been hounding us on social media asking when they can find it in their grocery store, which is exactly the demand we were hoping to create by giving it to chefs first.”
Scaling up from an original field trial of two-tenths of an acre, Costa now cultivates about 2 acres of Caulilini. Mann’s has exclusive seed rights with Aruba Seed and the variety being used can be grown year round in the Salinas Valley, where they are based. The group is also working on a variety that could grow in the Yuma, Arizona, area, Harris said.
“Hopefully we created a new product for the future, who knows?” Beussen said.
Above: Mann Packing’s Director of Growing Operations Rick Harris, center, looks at a crop with members of the Mann Packing research and development team. Photos: Mann Packing