A cracking time in California with Wonderful Pistachios

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My sanity has been questioned many times over the years – not least, on occasion, by myself – so the nut job jokes came thick and fast when I accepted an invitation from Wonderful Pistachios to visit (via private jet!) parent company Paramount Farms’ plantation and processing facility in Lost Hills, California, prior to this year’s IAADFS show in Orlando. It was, however, an insanely good decision to go, in spite of the fact that this year my US odyssey would ultimately incorporate 10 flights in 10 days (possibly a Moodie Report record), thanks to an equally fabulous post-show trip to Louisville with Brown-Forman (more of which soon, in a separate Blog. Once the bourbon has worn off.)

From artichokes to pistachios, via Beverly Hills restaurant Maude

Until then, back to the nuts. Via some artichokes (bear with). Any trip that begins with a private jet is sure to be Wonderful (see what I did there?), and I must confess that I was madly excited by the prospect of a little exclusive air travel, especially after the rigours of an 11-hour BA flight to LAX, which included a fractious infant in the row in front; a strapping six foot six Russian in the seat behind (my back still bears the imprint of his knees); and an erratic IFE system with only intermittent sound. There wasn’t enough red wine on board to blot out that lot – although I gave it a really good go.

Roasted artichoke ice cream – only in LA…

Prior to the trip, I’d received a one-line email from Paramount Farms Director of Sales Australia, SE Asia & Global Travel Retail James Kfouri, which asked: “Do you like artichokes?” I thought I’d got myself a scoop about a new travel retail exclusive collection, but it transpired that James had managed to book the chef’s table at the recently-opened Maude in Beverly Hills (mauderestaurant.com), owned by Australian chef Curtis Stone. The restaurant, which boasts just 25 seats, offers a no-choice, nine-course monthly set menu, inspired by one special seasonal ingredient. In March, it was all about artichokes (although while we were there questions were asked about pistachios. Watch this space).

My pilot for the day. He even carried my bag

Entre nous, I was a bit ambivalent about artichokes before that dinner, but two courses in, I was converted. Highlights included the croquettes and the roasted artichoke ice cream. In short, the food is fabulous and the setting divine. Eat there if you can.

The Moodie Report’s Rebecca Mann and Wonderful Pistachios’ James Kfouri fly to Lost Hills in serious style

That dinner set us up nicely for the following day’s trip, which began bright and early with a flight in a nine-seater private plane to Lost Hills, one of Paramount Farms’ prime nut-growing locations in California’s San Joaquin Valley. In total we did three flights on a PJ that day and dear reader, it is the ONLY way to travel. You don’t have to queue for hours at security and disrobe in front of strangers. You don’t have to cram all your LAGS into one tiny, transparent bag. The powers that be are not bothered about boarding cards, passports, turning off mobile phones and taking your laptop out of its case. They give you coffee and fruit, smile graciously and escort you personally onto the plane, where you sit wherever you damn well like. In short it has ruined me forever in terms of air travel – and believe me, the five internal US flights I did subsequently with Delta proved particularly painful in comparison.

Size matters: an aerial view of Paramount’s vast Lost Hills facility

But nothing was more impressive than the orchards themselves. It is difficult to convey in either words or photos the sheer scale and beauty of the Lost Hills operation. You simply have to see it for yourself. The nut plantations – both almond and pistachio – are vast, stretching as far as the eye can see once you’re on the ground. The pistachio trees in particular are beyond striking. Dormant at this time of year, they are a strange silver grey, eerily beautiful and lined up precisely like rows of silent sentinels. It’s a sight that will remain with me always.

Rows of almond trees, ready to be pollinated by bees

Tour Coordinator Levi Barton treated us to a comprehensive private tour of both the orchards and the processing facility. It’s an impressive operation on every level. Paramount’s pistachios go from tree to silo in less than 24 hours, and its on-site facilities allow the company to sort, grade, process, roast, flavour and package billions of nuts each year. The numbers involved are staggering – and not just in terms of nuts.

The striking dormant pistachio orchards at Lost Hills

Almond trees, for example, are pollinated by bees (unlike pistachio trees, which are pollinated by the wind). The company needs 90,000 hives (at a cost of US$170 each) to do this. With 30,000 bees per hive, and 1.95 hives per acre, that adds up to a requirement of 2.7 trillion bees each year. Regarding irrigation, one and a quarter gallons of water are required per almond nut per year – no mean feat in an area that is suffering from a severe and prolonged drought.

James Kfouri, the face of Wonderful Pistachios in travel retail

Such mind-boggling figures reinforce the scale of Paramount’s reach – it is the world’s largest grower and processor of almonds and pistachios. Together with its Grower Partners, the company farms 125,000 acres that deliver 450 million lbs of nuts each year. Since launching into travel retail in 2012, the Wonderful Pistachios brand has grown exponentially, gaining listings with retailers all over the globe. Awareness was further boosted by the brand’s recent Super Bowl campaign, starring Stephan Colbert, which kicked off a new, full-year agreement with Colbert under the theme, “Get Crackin’, America”.

Paramount is the world’s largest grower and processor of almonds and pistachios

The company estimates it reached 115 million viewers through that Super Bowl campaign, plus another four million online, complemented by a further 2.16 billion impressions created via its PR activity. By the end of this crop year Paramount is confident of getting close to its 70% awareness goal, putting pistachios in the same realm as salty snacks such as chips and pretzels. And increasing Wonderful Pistachios’ global travel retail distribution footprint is a key priority.

Glamour personified: Mann and Kfouri prepare to visit the Lost Hills processing facility

With the redoubtable Kfouri charged with driving sales within the channel, further expansion throughout 2014 and beyond seems assured. The Lost Hills visit was an ideal opportunity to experience first-hand the scale of the company’s achievements to date – and its ambitions for the future. Huge thanks to the Paramount team for an LA adventure that was Wonderful in every respect.

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