When I hear the term "nonpareil," visions of candy and Rolls-Royces normally come to mind. To Dustin Hopkins, this is a French term for unparalleled; It's also the variety of almonds his father farms in Bakersfield. What began in 2009 as an alternative means of income in a single market has blossomed into 13 markets and 1,000-plus packages of almonds sold every week. They are even known to sell out, a wrinkle Hopkins gratefully describes as "a constant affirmation we have a great product."
Nut brands in supermarkets are pasteurized and have a two-year shelf life. Hopkins' nonpareils are harvested annually and considered the largest and sweetest of the 27n almond varieties one can plant. Of the 500 acres of them grown, only a fraction of this relative to the peach family makes it down to Orange County. Dustin makes trips throughout the year to load upward of 4,000 pounds of almonds for the long haul home.
Kern County weather is ideal for the conditions needed to grow almond trees. "Cold, not freezing, winter weather keeps the trees dormant," Hopkins says. Super-hot summers assist with pollination. As many as 30 years can pass before replanting the crop.
Picking Shaking the trees for seeds occurs in late summer/early fall, between August and October.
Hopkins always knew he wanted to teach, receiving his doctorate from Claremont Graduate University. Interested in having a side business to support his wife and three children, he decided to continue the family business, and Laguna Niguel's farmers' market became the first location to carry his superfood; Dana Point soon followed. Word of his freshly farmed almonds spread, and he now coordinates a team that covers 13 markets throughout the county. Previously done in the Hopkinses' home kitchen, the roasting process now takes place in the commercial kitchen of Mark's Catering in Lake Forest, under the watchful eye of Antonio Ramos.
During the week, Dustin teaches English at Orange Coast College, but you can spot him on weekends selling in Laguna Beach and Laguna Niguel. Besides the hallmark raw, Hopkins regularly carries four flavors: roasted chili and lemon (his favorite), roasted lime and sea salt, roasted maple and orange, and the best-selling Spanish style--blanched, sautéed in olive oil, with rosemary and sea salt added. Dustin's wife, an excellent cook, ensures the ingredients used are of the best quality, including fresh citrus. Toward the end of the year, you might be lucky enough to pick up a bag of pumpkin-spiced ones. At the moment, though, he sells a seasonal vanilla bean.
Outside of eating them straight from the bag, he offers a couple of pairings. The chili and lemon is a crunchy add-on to Mexican salad. Its heat is subtle, so there's nothing to worry about. If you pulverize the Spanish ones, they make for a delicious breading on fish. After trying them all, my savory tendencies converted to a maple-and-orange groove. They also carry a creamy, organic almond butter, which one of his salesmen uses in cookie recipes.
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Dustin is currently content with the amount of business his almonds are generating, and he isn't planning to expand to other markets. "We do everything we can possibly do to give the best almonds they can get," he says.
Hopkins AG almonds are available during the week at various Orange County farmers' markets, but the family website doesn't list them, so here it goes:
Tuesdays in Irvine at Historic Park at the Irvine Ranch; Wednesdays in Tustin at the corner of El Camino Real and Third Street; Thursdays in Costa Mesa at the Orange County Fairgrounds; Fridays in Laguna Hills at the Laguna Hills Mall parking lot, in Huntington Beach at Pier Plaza parking lot (adjacent to the pier), and in Rancho Santa Margarita at the Big Lots parking lot (30501 Avenida de las Flores); Saturdays at UCI, in Laguna Beach at the Lumberyard parking lot, in Dana Point at La Plaza Park (intersection of PCH and Street of the Golden Lantern), and in Costa Mesa at South Coast Collection (3303 Hyland Ave.); Sundays in Irvine at the Great Park, in Laguna Niguel in Plaza de la Paz Shopping Center, and in Newport Beach at Lido Marina Village.
The almonds can also be purchased online via www.hopkinsagoc.com.