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Love for sale in Arizona

Jars of Dawn Petersen's pickles and spiced pickled peaches are sold at the Lillie Mae's Blue Ribbon Pickled Garden booth at the Uptown farmers' market in Phoenix, Arizona on Wednesday, Jan. 6. Photo by Uptown farmer's market.

Jars of Dawn Petersen’s pickles and spiced pickled peaches are sold at the Lillie Mae’s Blue Ribbon Pickled Garden booth at the Uptown farmers’ market in Phoenix, Arizona on Wednesday, Jan. 6. Photo by Uptown farmers’ market.

Small, independent businesses make cookies with mesquite pod flour. Large candy factories sell chocolate handcuffs. When it comes to Valentine’s Day treats in the Grand Canyon State, why not buy locally produced treats?

Americans will purchase about 36 million heart-shaped boxes of chocolate this February, according to the National Confectioners Association. There is no need for Arizonans, however, to buy their significant other a Whitman’s Sampler to proclaim their love.

Take your sweetheart on a road trip around the state to get a taste of how Arizona says, “I love you,” locally.

Esperanza Arevalo sells prickly pear cookies made with mesquite flour at the Heirloom farmer's market at Rillito Park on Sunday, Jan. 31. Photo by Lindsey Wilhelm/Arizona Sonora News.

Esperanza Arevalo of Tortilleria Arevalo sells prickly pear cookies made with mesquite flour at the Heirloom farmer’s market at Rillito Park on Sunday, Jan. 31. Photo by Lindsey Wilhelm/Arizona Sonora News.

Start in Tucson at the Rillito Park Racetrack farmers’ market, which runs Sundays 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and swing by a few booths that offer local Valentine’s Day treats.

Esperanza Arevalo owns Tortilleria Arevalo, and she sells a variety of edible goods, including gluten-free mesquite tortillas, every weekend at local farmers’ markets.

Arevalo began using mesquite pod flour when Gary Nabhan, an internationally known farming activist and University of Arizona ethnobiologist, approached her tortilla booth and asked if she and her father could make a version using mesquite flour.

Nabhan, a diabetic, wanted a healthier alternative to flour tortillas.

“Mesquite is high in protein and fiber,” Esperanza said, “and it can help to cut the craving of eating something sweet.”

Arevalo and her father spent a year of trial and error to perfect their recipe for mesquite tortillas. Mesquite cookies were a natural follow-up to the tortillas, Arevalo said.

Lovers looking for Valentine’s Day treats can grab a pack of Tortilleria Arevalo’s mesquite or prickly pear cookies, six for $4.

Charlie Allen sells bags of locally harvested mesquite flour at the Heirloom farmers' market at Rillito Park on Sunday, Jan. 31. Photo by Lindsey Wilhelm/Arizona Sonora News.

Charlie Allen of Prickly Pops sells bags of locally harvested mesquite flour at the Heirloom farmers’ market at Rillito Park on Sunday, Jan. 31. Photo by Lindsey Wilhelm/Arizona Sonora News.

Arevalo calls her business “locally sourced” and “crafted with love,” but the sweet-tasting mesquite used in most of her products is from Peru due to its climate.

“In Arizona, it’s dry and the mesquite is not very manageable,” Arevalo said. “Since Peru is tropical, the mesquite is easier to work with, but a little gooey.”

Prickly Pops is another booth at the same market that sells mesquite. The owners, Charlie and Jeau Allen, harvest mesquite flour in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert and sell bags of it at farmers’ markets around Pima County.

The Allens also sell treats made with prickly pear fruit, such as margarita mix, popsicles, syrup and jelly.

Also at the Rillito market, check out Lillie Mae’s Blue Ribbon Pickled Garden for its Valentine’s Day special: red-hot pickles.

Dawn Petersen and her two children founded the company, named after Dawn’s grandmother, in 2010.

Charlie Allen sells prickly pear margarita mix at the Heirloom farmers' market at Rillito Park on Sunday, Jan. 31. Photo by Lindsey Wilhelm/Arizona Sonora News.

Charlie Allen of Prickly Pops sells prickly pear margarita mix at the Heirloom farmers’ market at Rillito Park on Sunday, Jan. 31. Photo by Lindsey Wilhelm/Arizona Sonora News.

“My son noticed there wasn’t anyone doing good bread-and-butter pickles in the market,” Petersen said.

At the Petersens’ first farmers’ market in Phoenix, the pickles sold out in about an hour. The family now sells more than 3,000 units a month, Petersen said, and their varieties have expanded to pickled beets, peaches, okra, pumpkin and more.

What makes Lillie Mae’s pickles so special is they are organic, pesticide-free and hydrophobic-grown, Petersen said. She also said she uses a smaller amount of sugar and only one-fourth of a teaspoon of sea salt in any one of her pickles.

After chowing down on some mesquite cookies and red-hot pickles, drive an hour and 45 minutes northwest to Sphinx Date Co. Palm and Pantry in Scottsdale, where you can purchase saguaro fruit syrup harvested by the Tohono O’odham tribe, 1.5 ounces for $25.

Sphinx is better known for its dates.  The company has been in the date business for over 60 years. You can enjoy a date milkshake on the patio until 5 p.m. on Sundays.

Cerreta Candy Company in Glendale is the largest candy manufacturer in Arizona. Photo by Tony the Marine/Wikimedia.

Cerreta Candy Company in Glendale is the largest candy manufacturer in Arizona. Photo by Tony the Marine/Wikimedia.

Finish up your date milkshake and drive 30 minutes northwest to Glendale to visit Cerreta Candy Company, the largest candy manufacturer in Arizona. The Cerreta factory has been producing a variety of sweets for over 40 years, now churning out up to 6,000 pounds of candy every day, co-owner Joe Cerreta said.

The factory offers free tours weekdays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., and between 300,000 and 400,000 people visit each year.

The company offers Valentine’s Day treats like chocolate handcuffs for $5.95. Big spenders might opt for the $125 Chocolate Lover’s Basket. It includes three chocolate roses, nine chocolate-covered strawberries, peppermint cookies, a heart-shaped box of chocolates, a chocolate bar, a 7-ounce chocolate heart and a bag of French mints, which are Cerreta’s most popular candy. 

Lindsey Wilhelm is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at lindseywilhelm@email.arizona.edu.

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