Monday, August 31, 2009

Fruit Feasting in Far North Queensland

Banana tree growing free

There's something romantic about nature in Far North Queensland. The sun seems to nurture rather than scorch, the ocean to soothe rather than rage. The sky seems bluer, the plants greener, the flowers more vibrant. Life bursts all around, and I can loose myself walking on a glorious stretch of beach or exploring in the dense rainforest, in sheer awe of nature's perfection.

Of course the other side to the extreme beauty of the tropics is the intense humidity and rainstorms of the wet season. But it's the special combination of heat and rain that produce what I consider the best feature of the tropics: the fruit. Rare and wonderful gems of the tropics like star apple and abiu thrive in conditions that are enough to drive most human beings insane.

Tropical Fruit Bowl of Yumminess

As a tourist, the place to sample some of these goodies is the Cape Tribulation Exotic Fruit Farm. It produces a commercial crop of mangosteens, but the orchard is dotted with a wide assortment of fruit trees producing their various bounty in their own seasons. Even visiting at the end of the dry season there's an exciting assortment to taste and view in the stunning orchard, set just at the foot of the rainforest.

Today's Menu

Our tasting guide is Trish, who nurtured a passion for fruit growing up in Brazil. Her enthusiasm is infectious, and she soon has us gasping and mmming our way through a gigantic bowl of exotic goodies. We start with water spiked with West Indian lime, to cleanse the palate, and then we dive right into the tasting.

Pummelo is first, a fruit I remember from my travels in Israel. It's sweeter than a grapefruit, but still retains a hint of tartness. It reminds me of my childhood breakfast of a halved grapefruit sprinkled with brown sugar. Interesting, but not exotic enough for me yet. Next is longan, which is similar to a lychee. The skin is thinner and brown, but when peeled away it has that eyeball texture and mildly sweet juicy flesh with a slight sour tang.


By this time I'm eying off some of the more unsual fruits in the bowl, and my wish is granted. Trish holds up an abiu fruit, which she calls the "guardian of the mangosteen" because of the trees' big, shady canopy that protects the young trees but which can pruned back to practically nothing when it's the mangosteens' turn to shine. The abiu is a tropical exclusive; it can't be transported because it is incredibly fragile and oxidizes quickly. It's like nothing I've ever tasted - gentle and approachably sweet with a soft texture. It's so good that we all eat it down to the skin, only to be left with a strange sticky residue on our lips as though a big bubble of gum as been burst in our mouths. It's a strange sensation, but tasty enough to leave us wanting more.

Abiu - sweet and lovely

Moving on the sapote family, we have a taste of the sapodilla or sapote chico. It's not a fibrous fruit, and the texture is smooth and avocado-like. The flavor is reminiscent of a ripe date - lots of sugar and hint of spice. Imagine Christmas pudding in a fruit and you ahve the sapodilla.

The yellow sapote is possibly even less fibrous, with a texture like crumbly cheese and a color like the yolk of a fresh egg. I'm in love with this fruit - the flavor is sweet, but there's something more, something lusty. This is a fruit for grownups, it's mature and a little bit dangerous. Add it to my list of aphrodesiacs.

Yellow Sapote, you naughty thing

The star apple is a bit of a misnomer. It's related to the apple in color only, though a cross section of the fruit does reveal a glorious star. Hailing from Haiti, this big round dark orb is mildly sweet and refreshing on the inside. It's an easy to eat fruit, but again it leaves that sticky-lip feeling when you eat too close to the skin (and you do, because it's so good).

Trish with a glorious but misnamed star apple

Our only Australian native of the day is the Davidson plum. Again, it's not a plum, it only looks like a plum. Seems the English had a propensity to name things for things they looked like back home - a sentiment I understand, because whenever I travel I always find myself searching for a familiar point of comparison. It's taste, however, is not plum-like. It is one of the tartest things I've ever tasted, but not necessarily unpleasingly so. While everyone's faces pucker up as if we'd eated a bowl of lemons, we agree that it would make a nice chutney for red meat or could be cooked up with sugar to make a paste for a cheese plate (a la Maggie Beer), if you go in for that sort of thing. In the raw kitchen, I could see it adding a piquant bite to a sauce or salad, and I'm interested in getting my hands on some to have a play with. By itself it's full on, though I do spot my dad going back for seconds (I suspect he was alone in chosing this as his favorite of the day).

The final two fruits belong the custard apple family. First is rollinia, a South American native that closely resembles the custard apples I find in Victorian markets both inside and out. The taste is remarkable: lemon meringue pie, with the texture of, well, custard. The rollinia is a big hit, and it's followed by guanabana, also known as soursop. It's the only fruit in the custard apple family that has juice, so the pulp can be frozen, or the juice can be extracted for those who don't like it's overly fibrous texture. It tastes like a really sweet pineapple, minus the acidity, and with a faint hint of bubble gum. A bit too sweet for my taste, but truly exotic.

Rollinia (left) and Soursop aka Guanabana (right)

After the tasting I spend the rest of the week trying any tropical fruits I can get my hands on. Black sapotes turn out to be a bust, as the only ones I can find are full of seeds, but I do gorge myself on several pawpaws (aka papaya) and enjoy amazing local avocadoes and some dried mango.

I guess I'll have to go back in the wet so I can feast on the holy grail of tropical fruits: a fresh durian.

Mom and I basking in tropical glory
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