Why do you call yourself “the Fruit Detective”?
Well this is a little embarrassing. I don't usually watch popular movies and I certainly didn't watch Ace Ventura, Pet Detective, but I heard the title, and in a moment of levity I said, "Oh, Ace Ventura, Pet Detective—I could be the fruit detective!" And so I printed up a card.
There are a lot of people who write about food, but nobody has really concentrated on fruit connoisseurship. Think how many wine connoisseurs there are writing for various different publications, and there are whole magazines devoted to wine. And fruit is far more complex and multifarious. Each fruit is a world unto itself.
Have you solved many fruit mysteries?
I'm constantly looking into cases for which there are few or no written sources. I dig really deeply trying to find answers to questions that no one has asked or that have never been answered. For example, fruit writers have generally assumed that the coloration of blood oranges correlates with their taste. But I found out that it's not that simple, that anthocyanin —the pigments of blood oranges—has no flavor at all. There's another example, the dekopon, which is a very expensive and sought after Japanese tangerine hybrid. People had smuggled it into the United States illicitly, and I tracked down how it got in—and the amount of intrigue I discovered! It was kind of weird actually. Also, farmers are very proprietary about varieties that they think are going to become commercially valuable, so they don't necessarily want to have an article come out before they're ready. This is a perfect example here—I found out about the strawberry story five years ago and I had to nurse it along.
What drew you to the strawberry story?
I am attracted to those few individuals, often obsessive or quixotic, who dare to make flavor their primary objective. For no other fruit than the strawberry is the chasm wider between commercial and connoisseurs' varieties, between actual and potential fruits.
As a leading fruit expert, you've tasted all kind of fruits that few laypeople have even heard of. What's your favorite fruit?
I'm constantly asked this: the greengage plum. It's related to prune plums and it originated in or around the Caucasus Mountains. It's incredibly high in sugar but has good counterbalancing acidity and really intense aromatics. It's an atom bomb of flavor. We had a tree in our yard when I was a kid. It didn't produce fruit very often, but when we did get fruit it was just delicious, and I've been obsessed with finding them again here in the United States. They're a fruit that could and should be grown in the United States and I'm convinced that they will be.
You often wear a pith helmet—is it to protect your head from falling fruit, or just for style's sake?
I like to protect myself from the sun, because I've got a lot of exposed coastline, if you know what I mean. And also when you're around fruit trees all the time there are tree limbs that you can bonk into. Plus it's sort of a trademark of mine.