At Harvest one mist-drifting late summer morning Cassia brings us a plate of fruit resembling jewellery: a wedge of dragon- fruit, a quartered fig, tiny dabs of aged balsamic vinegar and minute pearls of finger-lime ‘caviar’. It tastes every bit as entrancing as it looks.
Exotic fruits begin gradually to elbow their way into farmers markets and, increasingly, supermarkets; fortunately their exoticism remains undiminished. Besides, it’s still only the tip of the iceberg to which we are mostly exposed. A list of them throws up examples like duku, canistel, marang and salak, star apple and abiu, pulusan and quaribea, with which we may never become acquainted. I remember decades ago when kiwifruit was considered exceedingly exotic, and not all that long ago a friend introduced me to sapote when she served it for a dessert we all swore was chocolate mousse; now these and others have entered our market vernacular.
Tropical Fruit World up at Duranbah might possibly be avoided by those regional residents without small children or foreign visitors, but my recent experience there was a genuine pleasure. Once you overcome its theme-parkery, the curved driveway allowing tourist coaches to disgorge their contents and the shop jam-packed with over-priced fridge magnets, stubby holders, bumper stickers and macadamia-based products, there is a lovely little nursery to explore where you can purchase your own kaffir lime or mangosteen or lychee or soursop tree, and another section where you can purchase their fruits. It is an absolute education in a lush sub-tropical setting; there is even (of course) the mandatory cafe serving good-looking food in a tranquil environment.
I love the way many of these exotic fruits have extraordinary, frequently ugly appearances, belying the treasures within. Rambutans taste like lychees, which in turn taste like perfumed grapes – rambutans however are like little hedgehogs with their forbidding spines and leathery skin. The actual word means ‘hairy’ in Malay, Indonesian and Filipino. Common-or-garden passionfruit fall into the category of exotic fruits (as do, surprisingly, the banal banana, the drearily-good-for-you, soapy papaya and the prickly pineapple) and they too come in a shell quite determined to withhold its contents. Star-fruit, or carambola, whose name comes from the five-pointed star shape of its cross-section, has a waxy casing which makes it look plastic, like the fake fruit you see in variety stores – and
yet its flavour is crunchy and sweet and a complicated mix of apple, pineapple and kiwi. Cumquats are oranges so tiny you might wonder why bother – yet stewed or bottled or macerated in brandy they are a rapturous delicacy. Durian are famous, or infamous, for their particular aroma, which has been compared to sewage, obstructing the fact of a flavour divine. Apparently because of the disagreeable smell the fruit is forbidden in hotels and on public transport in Southeast Asia. Then there is Ackee, Jamaica’s national fruit and a major feature in various Caribbean cuisines. Only its fleshy inner seed-coverings are edible while its red heart is extremely poisonous.
For true exotica, however, the Japanese should be given credit. Twenty years ago
a farmer on the south-western island of Shikoku came up with a solution to the problem of watermelon size and refrigerators. He devised the notion of melon-cultivation within glass boxes so that they grew into cubes, the perfect shape to be popped nattily into a standard fridge. Apparently these box-shaped watermelons appeal mainly to the wealthy and fashion- conscous of Tokyo and Osaka, with each melon selling for the equivalent of $83. That’s exotic!