by Dave Arnold
If you hate things that are awesome stop reading now.
If you are still reading: do whatever it takes to get to the Fruit and Spice Park in Homestead Florida, an hour south of Miami. South-Dade is the Mecca for tropical fruits in the continental US, and the Fruit and Spice Park is the public park where you can sample a bajillion of them.
I discovered the park in February when Chris Young (of Modernist Cuisine fame) and I were doing a gig at the South Beach Food and Wine Festival in Miami.
You enter the park through the gift shop, where you’ll find a table filled with whatever fruit the park staff think you should sample. Definitely sample them. If you want to want to eat more while you’re wandering in the orchards, you need to arrange a special guided tour in advance. If you show up unannounced they discourage you from eating fruit off the trees – it is a public park, and if everyone ate fruit off the trees it would be stripped bare lickety-split. Fruit that has fallen on the ground is OK to pilfer, but is often full of bugs (don’t be a wimp –eat around them) or, worse, over-ripe. We had arranged for a special tour and our intrepid guide, Rose Kennedy, picked fruit for us to taste.
Nastassia and I with Rose Kennedy, our tour guide.
Tropical fruit is weird. Forget everything you know about how fruit works –tropicals are different. Some highlights:
The canistel (Pouteria campehiana), which hails from Central America and southern Mexico, is a fruit I can get behind. It is picked hard and then allowed to soften off the tree into a delicious sweet fruit confection. Canistels are very dry as fruits go – similar to an avocado but without oil. The texture is likened by some to cooked egg yolks –a custard of which the canistel’s taste resembles; in fact, the canistel is sometimes called the eggfruit. It makes a fantastic ice cream or sorbet (and doesn’t require added cream). If I had easy access to canistel I would make it into ice cream all the time.
Canistel: outside and in.
Jaboticaba, Tree Grape:
Jaboticabas (Myrciaria cauliflora, M jaboticaba and other related species) are South American fruits that look like perfectly round grapes but grow on the bark of their trees in a most peculiar way (see the picture at the beginning of the post). There are many named cultivars, but I didn’t keep a record of the ones we sampled (idiot!). Most were delicious –sprightly with a muscadine grape/musky twang to them. One version had a bit of Concord grape flavor. A variety I didn’t favor was more yellow than purple and tasted like sucking on freshly soldered circuit boards.
Many tropical fruits don’t change their appearance as they mature. Even more problematic for the picker: fruits of widely differing maturities may be found on the same tree with roughly the same appearance. Half the trick of eating tropical fruits appears to be learning when and how to pick them. Take sapodilla (Manilkara zapota), a fruit of Mexican origin. Immature sapodillas look and feel like mature ones. How do you know when they are ready to pick? Simply scratch the skin with your fingernail. If you see green, leave it where it’s been. If you see yellow-brown, take it down. Many of the sapodillas on the trees we saw showed signs of finger-scratch testing. A mature sapodilla will soften up a couple of days after it is picked.
Sapodillas: scratch the skin with your fingernail. If it shows green it isn't ready to pick.
All the sapodilla cultivars we tasted were extremely sugary – more like brown-sugary. On their own they are sickeningly sweet. The first bite is nice, but the second has to be forced down. Add acid to a sapodilla in the form of lime, however, and you’ll want to eat them by the bushel. Fully ripened sapodillas are soft. Some of the ones we tried were smooth textured and some were a bit grainy, like a pear.
Sapodilla. Just add lime.
The sapodilla tree and other related species produce chicle, the original chewing gum. People called chicleros make cuts in the tree bark, collect the latex that drips out, and then boil the latex till it reaches the proper consistency – at which point it is known as chicle. Although most modern gum is now made from cheaper synthetic bases, you can still easily get chicle (try www.terraspice.com) and make your own gum — it’s great fun.
Chicle --processed latex from the sapodilla tree. Natural chewing-gum base.
Guavas can be Interesting:
It turns out that Guavas, a fruit I had thought was uninteresting and not so tasty, range radically in flavor, size, color, and texture. My previous guava judgment is akin to judging all of apple-dom based on a supermarket Red Delicious. The most interesting guava we tried is the cas (Psidium friedrichsthalianum), a tiny super-tart guava. Your first taste makes you pucker your lips like you were sucking on a lemon –but you are compelled to take a second taste. It would make a most refreshing drink.
Pretty guavas that I don't care for.
Cas: an ugly guava that I really like. Tart and refreshing.
The Much Maligned Starfruit:
Everybody seems to have a tropical fruit they don’t like, and starfruit, or carambola (Averrhoa carambola), is one that most of my chef friends deem useless. Even though carambolas are low on flavor, I find a them quite pleasant: watery, mildy acidic, not hard –yet crunchy. I sampled around ten types of the park’s starfruit to see if there were some butt-kickers I could take home and rub in my buddies’ faces. Sadly, no. While I had some of the best starfruit I have ever had at the park, I tasted no game-changers that I could leverage into a starfruit proselytizing campaign.
Like Starfruits? They got plenty.
In case you were wondering, I save my tropical-fruit enmity for the dragon fruit (Hylocereus undatus) –one of the showiest fruits in the world. It tastes like crunchy, off-flavored water. Somebody please tell me I’m wrong and send me a good dragon fruit.
A Sapote by any Other Name:
Ask a tropical fruit expert about sapotes and they roll their eyes. Sapote, they will tell you, is a catch-all term for any sweet, roundish fruit from south of the border. You have to specify which sapote you are discussing. Who knew? Well, I want to discuss the black sapote (Diopyros ebenaster), or, as it was described to us, the chocolate pudding fruit. Pick them when they are green and when sepals are starting to pull away from the fruit, and let ‘em soften up a week or so — you’ve got a fruit that tastes like carob pudding. Everyone says chocolate pudding, but to me it tasted more like carob (remember in the 80’s when people were all trying to convince themselves that carob tasted like chocolate?)
Top right: a black sapote that is ready to pick --the sepals are pulling away from the fruit. Top left: a black sapote ready to eat. Bottom: the inside of a black sapote.
Carob or chocolate, this fruit is pretty damn good. As good as the fruit is, the ice cream is better. All you need to do is blend and freeze, nature does the rest. In the Miami area you can purchase a commercially made black sapote ice cream from Gaby’s Farm Tropical Fruits and Ice Creams. I recommend it.
Gaby and her ice creams.
Spices and Leaves and Such:
Fresh allspice leaves (Pimenta dioica). I want them, I need them. They smell like allspice, but fresh and green. Why can’t I buy them in New York? Even more important: Lemon Allspice leaves (aka Lemon Bay Rum, Pimenta racemosus). Why had I never heard of them, and why aren’t they in everybody’s kitchen? A leaf with the aromas of allspice and lemon!
Close-up of crushed lemon allspice leaf and Chris Young sniffin and munchin.
Achiote (aka Annato, Bixa orellana) –the fresh stuff. Beautiful. Don’t know if it tastes any different, but sure is purty.
Different varieties of achiote pods on top, and an opened one on the bottom. The seeds are covered in a red mucilage that dyes your skin instantly.
The Guiana Chestnut (Pachira aquatic) is another cool tree from Cental and South America. The nuts taste somewhat of chestnuts and can by boiled, roasted or fried (yes, I fried mine).
Guiana Chestnut. The seeds are cooked and eaten. They taste a little like chestnuts (duh).
You Have To Keep Going Back
There is no best time to visit the park. There are always some fruits in season, and many trees bear fruit throughout the year in sporadic cycles that are difficult to predict. In the tropics, where there is no killing frost, trees aren’t necessarily tied to annual cycles the way our temperate plants are. The Monstera deliciosa takes over a year to go from flower to mature fruit. The odds that you’ll get to taste one on any particular visit are low.
Immature Monstera deliciosa fruit at the Park.
On our February visit Rose often described the amazing fruit of some tree, how pretty it was, how delicious — and then told us it wasn’t available just then. Salivating, we would ask when it was available, and she would usually say, “oh, you just missed it,” or “oh, in a couple of weeks.” Rose described the product of one sporadic bearer, the ice-cream bean tree (Inga edulis), as a fruit that tasted like cotton-candy-flavored ice cream. From the description, it sounded like a life-changing fruit –a fruit that could launch a thousand ships –a fruit you’d cheat your mom to get. Chris in particular was disappointed he didn’t get to taste it (here is the good news Chris: Nastassia and I tasted it on a later trip: it was good, but I wouldn’t cut off my pinky-toe for regular supply).
Ice Cream Bean: the sweet part is the fluffy white stuff (the aril) around the seeds. It does taste like cotton candy ice cream; but not great cotton candy ice cream.
While the availability of some fruits are just the luck of the draw, some have definite seasons. The most important of these fruits is the Mango. Mangos are in season only in the summertime. The Park has over 140 mango varieties. I also learned that a couple of miles away from the park lies the Fairchild Farm, a division of the Fairchild Botanical Gardens, with over 400 mango cultivars — the greatest collection of mangos in the country. I love mangos, and who doesn’t? Harold McGee and I had been trying for several years to organize a mango tasting trip to India, one of the centers of mango diversity, but Nastassia and I decided that our first mango-thon should be in Florida. Stay tuned for part 2 of this post: Mango Madness.
Hey Dave, I’m Gonna be near Homestead, but don’t have time for the Park. What Should I Do?
- Rearrange your schedule to make time.
- Visit Robert is Here, a nearby famous fruit stand featuring loads of locally grown tropical fruits.
Hey Dave, I wanna know more. What books should I read on tropical Fruit?
I’m glad you asked.
If you go to the Fruit and Spice Park, purchase their slim guidebook at the gift shop and peruse it before heading outside.
The guide book from the Fruit and Spice Park.
For free reading you can’t beat the online version of Julia F. Morton’s out-of-print classic, Fruits of Warm Climates.
Published in 1987, Fruits of Warm Climates is still considered a go-to book by tropical book enthusiasts. If you want a more comprehensive list of plants, try Margaret Barwick’s Tropical & Subtropical Trees: A World Encyclopedic Guide.
Tropical and Subtropical Trees: the cover and a sample page.
The book is fantastic, but it doesn’t deal exclusively with fruit trees, and focuses on the trees themselves rather than the taste and use of the fruits. Still worth a read.
For the “Completely Useless for a New Yorker but Still Extremely Coveted” award, I present my favorite of the lot: Brazilian Fruits & Cultivated Exotics (for consuming in natura) by Harri Lorenzi, et al. Holy crap. Makes me want to move to Brazil. It contains a brain-busting array of fruits along with taste descriptions, usage, and beautiful shots of the plants and the fruits. By the way, in Brazil, an apple counts as a cultivated exotic but the rare mendubi-guaçu (the red fruit that looks like a flower on the cover) does not.
Brazilian Fruit & Cultivated Exotics: Cover on left, sample page on right. Notice the nifty blue grid the fruit is shot on.
My wife occasionally tries to stanch the steady stream of new books coming into my small apartment — it must be admitted that the ones I already own are fitted into every crevice like tetris pieces. She agreed that room needed to be made for this book. All the fruits are shot on a crazy blue background with a 1×1 cm grid pattern for scale. As the parenthetical part of the title suggests, this book only deals with fruits that are consumed without preparation. From the preface to the book:
We will not address fruits or parts of fruits that need some type of preparation (cooking, roasting or seasoning), before they can be consumed, like the palm fruit known as pupunha, the pepper, the red sweetsop, the mirliton, pumpkin, Brazilian nightshade (gilo), the cucumber, the olive, the scarlet eggplant, the elephant apple, the Ceylon cinnamon, etc.
Badass. The authors have so many awesome fruits to choose from that they won’t even deign to eat a cucumber raw! The book is hard to find at a reasonable price. I got my copy from a tropical fruit website in Hawaii.
Up next: Mango Madness!