A World of Fruit

3ba9f8a53b72417cdcb3bd4d7d83cd41‘It is not only the taste, or the freshness, but especially the memories, the beliefs, the associations – the whole cultural package – that makes the fruit more than food.”  

So says the late, great Doreen Fernandez,  food writer and food historian extraordinaire and one of my favorite Filipina writers. The quote is taken from her book Fruits of the Philippines, a fascinating mix of fact, fiction and memory. As she tells us in her introduction:

“Each fruit would be identified first by its local names, then by its English name, and by its leaves and flowers, but especially its fruit, how it is eaten, how it tastes and how it figures in the culture,” from fairy tale to folk medicine.

Her tales of tropical fruit were written to record a childhood world full of taste and texture, at a time when many native species were being threatened with extinction. The pages are interspersed with photos and illustrations that enhance her lively descriptions. And I was particularly struck by the line that I quoted at the beginning, on how fruit features in so many memories, for I, too, find the fruits of my childhood have many memories associated with them, although my frame of reference is several degrees further south….

I grew up in a temperate zone: our fruit baskets were full of apples and pears, citrus and stone fruit. We clambered up our grandmother’s tree to hunt loquats and scrambled down the side of the house, to capture passionfruit that grew thick on the vine along the fence, tearing open the leathery casing and sucking the juice through our teeth.

Every garden in South Australia had a lemon tree that was never out of season, always heavy with sunshine-coloured fruit eager to be included in the lemon meringue pie or my aunt’s homemade lemon cordial. My grandfather also had an orchard of orange trees, where bumble bees buzzed about the pretty white flowers in spring. My mother had a huge tin cauldron for making marmalade, chunky style, bubbling away for hours on the back of the stove, filling the house with the oily scent of orange zest.

Many gardens also boasted an almond tree, usually embroidered with tin foil to scare off the rainbow lorikeets, who tore the nuts of the branches with hooked beak and raucous shrieks of delight, and left us with a confetti of husks beneath the tree. We would pick them too early to beat the rosellas, the soft, pale-skinned, unripe almonds punishing our keen-as-mustard greed with crippling stomach aches.

Then there were sunset-tinted apricots, the fruit of princes, the apricot tree’s fecund branches heavy with fruit, leaning like a weeping willow to the ground. Another back yard favourite that swamped our kitchens for a too-short season with glabrous fruit that dripped juice down our chins, filled jars and jars and jars with thick, oozy jam. Quilts of apricot halves would be laid out on chicken wire trellises to dry in the sun, or, stewed and syrupy, could be hoarded in the cellar and served with icecream.

Pineapples occasionally found their way down south from Queensland, but generally they had been picked too early and were as sour as kamias, in marked contrast to the sickly-sweet canned variety, leaving your tongue feeling uncomfortably furry. Bananas travelled more successfully, and were great for school lunches, even better for cakes once they had become too brown and sleepy to eat straight from the skin and could be miraculously converted into warm slices of fresh, moist buttered banana loaf.

Avocados were all oily, creamy smoothness, rare and expensive and a real luxury. Dad would bring a single avocado home from work as a Friday night treat. It was as serious a moment as Holy Communion, as he sliced it in half, carefully removed the fat, round pip, filled the empty well in the centre with homemade vinaigrette, and spooned it sparingly into our mouths, eager as baby birds. These days, avocados are no longer seasonal, but evergreen at Woolworths, and it is possible to find a number of more exotic tropical fruit in the supermarkets, but forty years ago they were few and far between, we knew not what they were, and generally avoided their strange aromas and highly inflated prices.

Years in England added berries to my basket: raspberries and strawberries and blackberries and gooseberries (pronounced goozbry). Raspberries only appeared for Christmas, to accompany the plum pudding, slathered in brandy cream. The strawberry season was the chance to head out to the local strawberry farm and pick our own until our lips and teeth were vampire-red and our backs ached. Our mums would earn a few extra pennies in the summer term by picking for the farmer while the kids were at school, stripping down to shorts and bras, and coming home more scarlet than the fruit, from sunburn.

Blackberries grew like weeds in the local gravel pits, and we risked fierce scratches in early autumn to gather ice cream containers full of wicked black berries – free fare at a price – which we ate tentatively, alert to the risk of fat white worms dwelling at the core, wary of the mushy putrescent over-ripe ones that you would spit straight out, or those that pretended ripeness but were still wincingly sour. Seamus Heaney described it perfectly in his poem Blackberry-Picking, where he talks of being sent out in late August, “with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots. Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots… [and] our hands were peppered with thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.”  We did the same. Then we would gather in a friend’s kitchen to make dense, bubbling blackberry jam, which we sold at our back garden fêtes. I don’t remember eating it though. The fun was in the hunting. None of us really approved of homemade blackberry jam when there was shop-bought strawberry jam to be had.

Gooseberries – the Eurasian variety – are also a little dangerous to pick, the bushes bearing sharp thorns that seem hardly worth the fight for those marble-like, acerbic, furry green berries… until you taste the tart, but creamy gooseberry fool, and suddenly it is worth all the effort. I learned to make this delectable dessert during my nineteenth summer, in England. I have dreamed of it intermittently since. And I wish I had written this too, Amy Clampitt: “an inkling of the mingling into one experience of suave and sharp, whose supremely improbable and far-fetched culinary embodiment is a gooseberry fool.”

Although just imagine those poor babies born beneath the gooseberry bushes, soft new flesh torn to smithereens by those vicious thorns. What terrifying and twisted midwife invented such a tale?

Since moving to the tropics, I have created more fruit-filled memories, as I discover an astounding number of fruits I have never tasted before. For example, all those unfamiliar citrus fruit with names that roll off the tongue: dayap, dalandan, kalamansi and sagada. Fruits that range in flavour and appearance from the tiny, multi-seeded, and terribly sour kalamansi to the juicy, citrus-sweet dalandan; from the thick skinned, high-fibre pink pomelo (suha) to the lumpy, bumpy kaffir lime.

Then there are those incomparable fruits like the red, rubbery-haired rambutan with its juicy, lychee-like flesh, or the deep purple, palm-sized mangosteens hiding succulent orbs of soft white flesh to be sucked off thick seeds. What about the startling and colourful pitaya or dragon fruit that puts all its efforts into appearance and virtually none into flavour?  Its skin, like soft leather, is a deep pink with green horns, its flesh a black and white version of the seedy green kiwi fruit with less taste. There are the clusters of tiny, legendary lanzones and the giant langka (jack fruit) with its spiky skin that bears a family resemblance to the durian of the rank aroma and ambrosial flavour, but is actually not related at all.

I first came across banana hearts in the market mere moments after landing in the Philippines. I found them absolutely beautiful, but discovered I had neither the skill nor the knowledge for preparing them properly – any advice welcome. Yet I have used the brown-skinned, gritty-fleshed chico to create an interesting variation on the long-suffering banana loaf.

And kamias, an onomatopoeic fruit that makes you purse your lips just to say it. Chef Sau del Rosario tossed one at me many moons ago. I am still squinting.

It has also been an opportunity to discover the taste of a properly ripened pineapple and those fabulous Filipino mangoes. The One & Only has always maligned mangoes, after his childhood experiences of huge, over-ripe, overpowering Fijian mangoes. The Filipino mango is of a completely different caliber. An eighteenth century friar describes it as ‘the most sensuous fruit there is,’ and Fernandez quotes a nineteenth century Jesuit, who claimed that the mango found in Manila was ‘one of the most delicate…in the world, both because of its sweetness and its aromatic smell.’ It is also smaller and thinner than other varieties, its stone almost flat, its skin a pale yellow, its flavour heavenly. Green or yellow, ripe or sour, it is a joyful addition to both salads and smoothies. Although it is an import to the Philippines, it has settled so comfortably and vigorously here that it is has become totally ensconced in Filipino culture.

Originating in Brazil, the piña, or pineapple immigrated to the Philippines long ago on the Spanish galleons, and has since made itself quite at home amongst the hills around Tagatay, luxuriously sweet and firm, unexpectedly ground-dwelling (who else assumed they grew on trees?). The pineapple is a cone-shaped fruit, hence its name (piña is Spanish for pine cone), and the fibrous pineapple leaves can be woven into a fabric also known as piña that is used to make traditional Filipino formal wear.

With a world of fruits to choose from, I could go on for pages, but I will leave the last word to my favourite Australian food writer, Marion Halligan, who says, in her book The Taste of Memory, that ‘tastes and smells transport us, they carry our minds back, we do not so much remember their moments as relive them.’ And so it is with fruit.

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