Caulilini, the packaged baby cauliflower florets made its debut last June at the United Fresh Produce Association’s 2019 Convention & Expo in Chicago.
However, 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.
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?’
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 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.
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.