In faraway lands, a walk through the village street market is a sure bet for zeroing in on the best of a region’s edible fruits. And in spite of museums, adrenaline sports, helicopter tours, golf courses and all the other offerings cut out and polished for commercial tourism, I’ve often found the local bazaars and farmers markets to be the most exciting of exotic cultural experiences. New sights, smells and tastes meet you at each visit, and as you near the equator, the diversity of available local edibles increases until you may discover new fruits at every market stall. Watch for mamey sapotes in Cuba, blackberry jam fruits in Brazil, peanut butter fruits in Columbia, the lucuma in Peru, Sycamore figs in Yemen, mangosteens in Thailand—and that’s just the beginning of the long, long list. Following are a few suggestions, continuing from last week, of fruits (and one fruit wine) worth a journey to see and taste.
Jackfruit, South Asia. When a falling apple bonked the brain of Isaac Newton, the theory of gravity is said to have been born. But falling jackfruit can kill. This huge fruit, kin to the dainty mulberry, can weigh more than 100 pounds. Should you find yourself in the tropics on a sweltering day, hang your hammock in the shade of a guava tree, by all means—but beware of the jackfruit. The trees are common as cows in much of South Asia, and the oblong, green fruits are covered with a thick reptilian hide that exudes a sticky latex-like sap. Knives and hands should be greased with cooking oil before butchering a jackfruit. Inside are the edible parts—yellow rubbery arils that taste of banana, pineapple and bubblegum. The fruit is loved by millions, though the wood of the tree has value, and in Sri Lanka more than 11,000 acres of jackfruit trees are grown for lumber. The species occurs throughout the tropics today. In Brazil, where it was introduced in the late 1700s, it has become a favorite fruit as well as a problematic invasive species. Asian communities elsewhere around the world import jackfruits, many of which are grown in Mexico.
White Sapote, Mexico. A green-skinned apple lookalike with creamy, white flesh as juicy as a peach and as gratifying as a banana, the white sapote may be one of the most outstanding tree fruits in the New World. Though native to Mexico and Central America, it can be grown in temperate regions—as far north, even, as the foggy San Francisco Bay Area. I first met this fruit while cycling through Malibu, California, when I discovered hundreds of apple-sized orbs spilling from a pair of trees outside a driveway along Highway 1. I picked one up, found the fruit as soft and pliable as an avocado, and couldn’t resist taking a bite. I was stunned by the flavor and equally surprised that I had never seen this creature before, and I crawled into the culvert to salvage the fallen beauties. I packed about 20 pounds of bruised and oozing white sapotes into my saddlebags and, with a heavy heart, left perhaps 100 pounds more to spoil. That was in October 2004, and I suppose that the trees are still there. (If you go, harvest only the fallen fruit.) Just months later, I was walking through the desert mountains north of Cabo San Lucas on a dirt road that crosses the Baja Peninsula from El Pescadero on the Pacific coast eastward before the road connects with the main highway. Just before that intersection, I met a local ranch family who told me that in a nearby canyon was a semi-wild white sapote orchard. They spoke reverently of the trees and their fruit—but said I had just missed the season.
Fig, Greece and Turkey. A perfectly ripened fresh fig is soft and sweet as jam, making this Old World native essentially unable to withstand the rigors of long-distance travel or long-term storage. In effect, the fig is one of the very last fruits that is mostly unavailable outside the season and place where it is grown. Although Spanish missionaries tenderly packed fig cuttings with their guns and cannons and planted the lucrative food source throughout the New World, and although British explorers introduced the fig to the Pacific Islands and Australia, nowhere in the world do figs occur in such abundance as along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Portugal to Israel, Egypt to Morocco, and throughout the region’s islands, fig trees grow like weeds. Ravenous goats, worthless rock soils and never-ending drought, all in combination, cannot stop the miraculous fig, and the trees take over abandoned villages. They bust apart the cobblestones of bridges and castles, and they drop their fruits upon the world below. Esteemed cultivars grow in gardens and dangle over village fences. Wild seedlings and forgotten heirlooms grow in vacant lots and abandoned groves. In high season—August to October—sidewalks vanish as falling fruit accumulates like jam on the ground. Picking sacks full of figs is a sure bet in nearly every village below 3,000 feet. Greece and coastal Turkey are ground zero, but hundreds of varieties and millions of trees grow in Spain, Croatia, Italy, Portugal, France and Georgia—nearly anywhere in the region. Want to skip the high season and still get your fig kick? Then go to the island of Cyprus, where several local varieties ripen as late as December. Can’t travel until February? April? June? On parts of the Big Island of Hawaii, fig trees produce fruit year round.
Pawpaw, Appalachia. This is one fruit you may not find in your average farmers market. It’s been nicknamed “poor man’s banana” and described as “America’s forgotten fruit”—but why and how did we ever forget the pawpaw? It’s got the fetching qualities (as well as the DNA) of a tropical fruit, but this cold-tolerant species is as American as the Great Lakes, the swamps of Florida and the backwoods of the Appalachians. Abundant in places, it even occurs naturally in southern Ontario. Lewis and Clark encountered this relative of the cherimoya and were pleased by its creamy, custard-like flesh, and many people in the Eastern states are familiar with the pawpaw fruit, which may weigh five pounds and is the largest native edible fruit in America. On the shores of the Potomac River, pawpaw trees grow wild. Indeed, foraging may be the only way to taste this oddity. For whatever reason, pawpaws are scarcely cultivated and even more rarely sold in markets. So pack a machete and a fruit bowl and get thee to Kentucky. Take note: Kiwis call papayas pawpaws. That is, the “pawpaws” you see in New Zealand supermarkets are simply mislabeled papayas.
Cashew wine, Belize. I first described this specialty product of Belize two weeks ago. Cashew wine is not currently imported into or sold in the United States (or if it is, I haven’t heard about it) and short of having a friend pack a few bottles home on their next trek to Central America there may be no way other way than visiting Belize to have a taste (well, you can order it online, but that’s no fun). But it so happens that I was lucky enough to sample a bottle kindly sent to me last week by Travellers Liquors, the Belize-based maker of Mr. P’s Genuine Cashew Wine. Made from the fleshy cashew apple, Mr. P’s is tawny colored, like whiskey, on the sweet side and very aromatic. It smells and tastes like a lively stew of sour pineapple, molasses and maple syrup, with a strange and elusive hint of WD40—an exciting change of pace from the fermented juice of the grape. And here’s a morsel of jungle lore: Belizeans told me in 2002, as I traveled there for a month, that cashew wine will make a person drunk twice—once while drinking it, and again the next day if you should fall asleep in the sun.
I’ve surely missed a thousand other good fruits. More suggestions, anyone?