February 26, 2013
Long before there was guacamole, California rolls or the Super Bowl, there were avocados. The species–Persea americana–is native to Mexico and Central America and has been widely planted and naturalized in the Caribbean and South America. While vast orchards of trees–most of them genetic duplicates of the Hass variety and several others–grow in the world’s main regions of production, like California, in places less affected by the homogenous sprawl of commercial agriculture, hundreds of different varieties exist. In Ecuador, avocados of endless shapes, colors and sizes are sold in the central town markets. Certain varieties are favored and cultivated widely, but the spectrum of avocados here is almost as varied as the people who grow them. For avo advocates, such a selection of varieties makes touring the local markets a source of intrigue and offers a fine opportunity for a varietal tasting of the fruit that was once called “poor man’s butter.”
But the systematic food scientist hoping to set the table for an organized tasting also must know the names of his samples–and, unfortunately, the avocados of Ecuador elude such labeling. That’s because different varieties of avocado either don’t have names or because the vendors simply don’t know what they’re selling.
“This is just an avocado,” the vendor tells me carelessly at a market in Loja.
“But look,” I counter. “Those over there are different, and those, too, are black, not green. And some are tiny, like limes. There are many, many types, and they have names. So, what is this one called?”
She shrugs and laughs at her friends, who seem amused by my insistence and the pen and paper in my hands.
“Green avocado,” she says.
Other vendors commonly name their avocados as “Guatemalteca”–meaning Guatemalan. This, however, is not a variety name but a broad category of avocados that includes many varieties. Vendors have shown me Guatemalteca avocados with green pebbled skin, shiny, black, smooth skin and polished lime-green skin. I have seen Guatemalteca avocados both big and small, and I have tasted ones with watery, fruity flesh and fatty, thick, rich flesh.
I have pointed out these differences to fruit dealers who give this simple label to all their avocados, and they have answered, “Oh, that is Guate-negro, and that is Guate-verde, and that is Guate-pequeno. But that’s not important. Four for one dollar!”
Actually, it is important to get variety names straight before a tasting–and only occasionally are vendors helpful. In the town of Paute, about 30 kilometers northeast of Cuenca, I stopped in at the central market, having been told that some very fine avocados are grown here. I saw nothing especially remarkable–mostly just small to tiny avocados, both green and black, with thin, brittle skins and oily flesh. But one saleslady named her avocados as “Pautena.” Fresh data! I hungrily scribbled down this name–probably given to a local variety, born in this region and named for the town. Problem was, her avocados were all different sizes, colors and shapes, yet she insisted they had come from the same tree.
So, with proper names on them or not, here are some avocados you may taste in Ecuador.
Guatemalteca A word commonly heard in avocado conversations in Ecuador, Guatemalteca is the name applied to numerous avocado varieties by the vendors who sell them. This becomes a point of frustration for one trying to differentiate the varieties by actual name, yet to avocado experts the label carries a seed of truth. For the Guatemalan avocado is one of three subspecies of P. americana (the other two are the Mexican and the West Indian). Guatemalan avocado trees generally produce large fruits with pebbly, thick skins and fatty flesh. But there are hundreds of varieties of this subspecies, but never did I get much past the blanket term “Guatemalteca.” The avocados I found carrying this label had skins ranging from thin, shiny and black to thick, pebbly and green. Flesh was usually on the delicious and creamy, though a few Guatemalteca avocados were of the watery sort. I licked my spoon clean, confused every time.
Costeno An elongate, smooth, light green skinned avocado, the Costeno–if it really is the Costeno–has light, low-fat flesh that is fruity and mild. Such avocados are often reserved in Ecuador for use in sweeter preparations–such as blended with milk and sugar–but for many tasters, avocados like the Costeno will lose out when compared to the rich, fatty avocados of a proper Californian guacamole pot.
“Negro” With no given name beyond its color, this small, shiny fruit has skin that appears almost like asphalt–a mottled, blackish-brown. The flesh is nutty but plain, slightly bitter, and just a little watery. Be warned that the same avocado may be called a Guatemalteca.
Lojano I found this avocado in Cuenca, at a fruit stall on the east side of town. A very large and elongated avocado, with smooth shiny green skin, its flesh was a unique yellowish-orange and of buttery, fatty consistency. The Lojano was one of the very best I tasted–and four of these giants cost only a dollar. Praise Ecuador!
Criollo Another smooth-skinned, lime-green avocado like the Lojano and Costeno, the Criollo was found in the basket of a street vendor in Loja. The pit is huge and the meat lacking both in quantity and oil.
Pautena The town of Paute, in the mountains east of Cuenca, is renowned by some locals for its avocados, which may be grown nowhere else. The leading form seems to be a small, shiny black avocado not much larger than a golf ball and with dense, sticky flesh.
Other avocado names you may hear in Ecuador:
Mantequillo, nacional, paisano.
Peru–Another Place to Hunt:
The markets of Peru yielded some spectacular finds, of avocados both strangely shaped and of tremendous size. In the northern towns, one may find avocados weighing about four pounds and the size of footballs. In Huarmey, watch for a vendor in the central marketplace with a basket full of avocados shaped like cashew nuts.
Almost an avocado: The coyo is a green, pear-shaped fruit that hangs from large tree that belongs in the same genus as the avocado. The fruit is not commercially cultivated, but the intrepid searcher who asks questions and knocks on doors may find their way to a coyo tree. I, for one, did not. Good luck.
January 17, 2013
Symptoms of traveler’s diarrhea usually kick in an hour after the victim gets on the bus, I told my brother Andrew. He was eagerly attacking his first cooked meal in a week—a fillet of fish and fried potatoes from a small seaside restaurant in Tortugas. “It does’t matter when you get on the bus,” I elaborated. ”It’s an hour after you get on the bus.”
But he never got sick. In spite of numerous warnings from experienced travelers and stodgy medical doctors that street food, cooked food or any items that have been exposed to tap water, dirt or insects should not be eaten in Peru, we have both retained stalwart health since we began expanding our diet after a week of eating mostly fresh fruit. We started with chicha—Andean corn beer, which comes in several colors—and enjoyed its tart, fizzy bite in the town square of Huarmey. In the northern town of Tumbes we bought a hunk of local cow cheese. It was hard and aged, and it frankly left us hankering for a piece of cheese fresher and creamier, yet the fat and protein were a welcomed change. We look forward to buying more. We eyed the street vendors selling hard-boiled quail eggs for days, and now we have incorporated them into our diet. We have begun eating, as well, fresh corn—lumpy, stocky cobs sold for a few cents by street vendors working gas-powered grills. Andrew, thinking big again in the town of Puerto Pizarro, bought a whole rotisserie chicken with a three-pound bag of cooked rice and monestra (stewed beans) for 20 soles—about $8—and devoured most of the bird in less than 30 minutes. We haven’t gotten to Peru’s famous ceviche yet, though we will.
And while so much savory, hot food, heavy in oils and protein, has been a happy change for us, I have to admit I’d still rather hold out for fresh and exotic fruits. I told this to a French woman we recently met on a beach near Tumbes. She flatly said I was not experiencing Peru. “Like heck I’m not! I’m riding a bike through Peru and eating locally grown specialties,” I said. “How Peruvian is that? I was in France last year cycling. I never ate foie gras or escargots but I shopped at markets and made my own meals and got a great taste of the country.” I just don’t believe that one must have a restaurant staff tiptoe around you every day at feeding time to truly experience place and culture.
Rather, I find the outdoor markets of Peru to be endlessly entertaining galas of color, smells and flavors. Foreigners can expect to find new and unusual items at almost each visit—some variety of passion fruit, avocados the size of footballs, sapotes, mameys, guaba fruits like giant bean pods or sugar cane juice. Notably, Andrew has overdosed on cherimoyas and now grows nauseous every time I start talking about them. He even observed quite astutely during his final cherimoya meal—won’t touch them now—that the fruits smell sweetly like our chain grease. Yum.
But if cherimoyas turn a man’s stomach, the markets themselves are still a joy to browse. Aside from the food we take away, I also enjoy interacting with the vendors—asking names of fruits, exaggerating my surprise at the size of an avocado, asking for prices and holding out for the next stall, where the lucumas just might be ripe (most are sold three days before ripeness). Perhaps especially, I relish the power of leaving no long-awaited meal to chance—because a burning appetite for calories is nothing to waste at the end of each day. I ride my bicycle with potent visions of tropical fruit heaps luring me forward, and though a few hard-boiled eggs might tide me over until the marketplace, I will let no street vendor on the edge of town spoil my glorious meal of victory. The roving ceviche carts and meat grills are colorful pieces of street scenery, and we are enjoying some hot, savory food each day—as several readers advised we do—but eating a creamy cherimoya, a sweet and starchy lucuma or a pineapple with flesh as white and sweet as sugar could be the truest taste of Peru.
I’m usually forgiving of harsh wine while traveling. After all, just about anything from a bottle that gives a bite is appreciated late at night in a tent. But we are losing our patience with Peruvian wine. We had a bottle our first night at the Sol de Santa Rosa campground, on the bumpy road to Canta. It was a Miranda Cahuayo Semi Dry. I set aside my cherimoya to pop the cork—and the smell attacked me instantly. We had already been warned that Peruvian wine was bad, but we had disregarded the advice as the nonsense of a wine snob. But the wine was truly intolerable, smelling and tasting like rancid grease and spoiled raspberries slurried into a bucket of muddy charcoal dust. We tried again the next night with a Peruvian red whose name I neglected to record. Another disappointment—a wine so sweet and pungent that we couldn’t drink it. We vowed then to buy only wines from Chile, Argentina or other reputable producers. But the next night we got duped by a bottle with “Santiago” printed prominently on the label. A closer look during dinner revealed it was a Peruvian wine made of Concord grapes. We crossed our fingers and pulled the cork. It was a sweet, oily-tasting juice, like antifreeze. I’ve made wine in a plastic jug strapped to the back of my bike that was better. Grumbling, we poured it down the drain. A valid critic gives his subject many chances before making a conclusive statement—but how many chances must we give Peruvian wine? If someone could direct me straight to the good stuff—heck, just drinkable would be a start—I’d be grateful and would try again. But for now, we are afraid to buy another bottle.
What else can one drink in Peru? Cheap lagers are available at most grocery stores, but the main national brands taste like the cheap beer from anywhere else. There is also pisco, if you like distilled spirits. Pisco is Peru’s rendition of brandy and is often marketed by grape variety and frequently carries a nice scent of the starting grape itself—surprising for a liquid that has traveled through the tubes and chambers of a commercial still. But in a hot desert after a long day of cycling, sometimes the best drink is water.
We have both gotten sick. We should have known. Book-smart medical doctors and experienced travelers warned us that eating street food or nearly anything out of a kitchen here was liable to make us run for the bathroom. Shows what they know—the bus had no bathroom. We’re going back to cherimoyas.
July 10, 2012
There is no fruit quite like a fresh fruit. Picked ripe and eaten immediately, fresh fruits exhibit the vibrant sugars and zesty acids that make them so attractive to foraging creatures and a key element in their evolutionary strategy. But fresh-picked fruit is generally unavailable to most of us. That’s because farmers usually harvest their stone fruits, berries, figs and other delicate seasonals well before they’ve even ripened. Then, the pickings spend a week or more in transit, finally arriving in the grocery store dull as a billy-clubbed mahi mahi, often mushy or pithy and a sad exhibition of their species’ full potential. Even sadder is that fact that we consumers must take what we can get, and we live our lives buying and eating this sub-prime fruit.
Unless, that is, we hit the road and take matters—and super-fresh fruit—into our own hands. All along the roadways of America, and the world, fruit trees grow within reach of passersby, and about now, as summer heats up, these trees are loaded—and their abundant branches are hanging over a fence near you. Here’s a list of best bets for roadside foraging this July:
Loquats. The orange color and the suffix “quat” (think kumquat) lead many people to assume that the loquat is a citrus fruit—but it’s not even related. A native of East Asia and a favorite summer snack in Europe, Japan, Israel and Brazil, the loquat in America is common yet just as obscure. Many homeowners are unaware that the fruits, growing in their own yards, are even edible—which is good news for you and me. That means you can knock on the door, ask permission and, almost without fail, receive the go-ahead to “take all you want.” Some homeowners may appear baffled and say, “Those are edible?” Yes—fantastic, in fact, and surely one of the most under-appreciated garden fruits. When picking loquats, leave a quarter-inch of stem attached to each fruit, which will reduce bruising, and carry them home wrapped in a sweat shirt for padding. Peel the skins and savor the sweet, juicy, zesty flesh. If you have a real bounty to work with, try juicing a portion and making loquat cider.
Avocados. The fact that avocados, one of the most recognized and desired tree fruits, can be had for free along public roadways is simply wonderful. NOTE: This is NOT an invitation to plunder an orchard, which is illegal, taken seriously by Southern California law enforcement agencies and could land you in jail. Rather, this is simply a reminder to cyclists and pedestrians south of Santa Barbara to watch the roadsides for avocado trees, and, when you see one, look to the ground below, or in the culvert along the road. These are the places where ripe avocados go—and if you don’t get them, the rodents will. Avocado trees, happily, fruit almost all year.
Figs. The bulk of the year’s figs arrive in late summer and fall, but many varieties of the fruit produce an early crop, as well—physiologically distinct from the main crop of September. Called the “breba” crop, this first flush of figs usually consists of fewer fruits than the longer-lasting autumn crop—but not always, and in some places, and with certain fig varieties, a bounty of breba figs may weight the tree branches toward the ground. The black mission fig, one of the main commercial and garden varieties of California, produces a heavy breba crop in June and July. So does the desert king, a jammy, juicy green variety. Countless fig trees grow wild or feral along small rural roadways and can be easily and safely accessed. Texas and other states of the South offer good fig-hunting opportunities, too—and Southern Europe is a fig hunter’s heaven, especially in the fall. Breba crop figs grow from the old-growth wood of the previous year, and so they may often be concealed by summer foliage. Push back the leaves and behold the whoppers. Only take them if they’re splitting, sagging and dripping with juices, as figs will not ripen once picked.
Mulberries. An Old World native grown in America largely as a shade tree, the mulberry is a prolific producer and one of the most under-appreciated of tree fruits. Some mulberry varieties are cotton-candy pink, while others are purple, and others jet black—and all, when ripe, are pure sweetness, lacking the tannins that make blackberries and other thorny bush-berries so often bitter and sour. In nations around the Mediterranean, mulberries are loved, cultivated and often eaten dried, like raisins. In many places, fallen mulberries carpet the pavement a half-inch thick during July. In California and the rest of America, most trees are of non-fruiting varieties—often planted along paths and roadways as shade trees—but those bearing berries begin to drop their crop in June. Cyclists have a great advantage in hunting the mulberry, able to cover large distances but moving slowly enough to watch the asphalt; when you see dark stains of splattered fruit on the ground, hit the brakes and look up.
Blackberries. A no-brainer, blackberries are probably America’s favorite wild fruit. The Himalayan blackberry is also one of the most hated invasive species ever to leave its Old World homeland. Introduced in 1885 to Sonoma County by fruit breeder Luther Burbank, the species now grows in wicked bramble patches across the continent, and the world. Road crews and property owners attack the vines with chain saws, but there’s no stopping this thorny invader—and every July and August, it’s pie time. America also has a native blackberry, with gentler thorns than the Himalayan and bearing slender, elongated fruits about a month earlier, beginning in June. Blackberries fall in the genus Rubus, which also includes raspberries, salmonberries and thimbleberries. Blueberries and huckleberries are also a summertime crop, and an easy one to forage.
Wild Plums. Remember the chapter in Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire when he visits Kazakhstan’s wild apple forests and describes the fantastic abundance and diversity of the fruit, and the forest floor littered with a rainbow-colored layer of apples? Well, in parts of coastal California, the abundance of wild plums is almost as tremendous. Plum trees—growing wild, sprouted from seed—cover mountain slopes and bear fruits of a dozen colors. A quick skirmish with the brambles, and you’re among the trees. Taste through them until you find the best. TIP: You’ll find that the plums fallen and hiding in the grass are exceptionally sweet, ripened by days in the sun. Enjoy them on the spot, or take them home to make jam—or even wine. Planning on going Down Under? Then watch along the roads of New Zealand, where plums grow as wildly as in California.
The Prince Agaricus mushroom. A fungus fruit, the prince is one of the very best edible mushrooms, with a smell and flavor like almond extract that will knock almost any foodie to his knees as he begs you to tell just where you found these incredibly delicious things. Don’t tell—just share, and perhaps offer the basic scoop: The prince, Latin name Agaricus augustus, is a close relative of the cultivated portobello mushroom. Many other species in the genus are good to eat, as well—but the prince is the king. The mushroom is a summer fruiter, often occurring in areas touched by fog drip or in parks wetted by sprinklers. The mushrooms like to grow in disturbed soils—and right beside roadways is a great place to look. I’ve even encountered the prince while cycling through Bulgaria and Greece. Unsure I had met my old friend so far from home, I smelled the cap—and that almond-anise aroma left no doubt. When the mushrooms are barbecued, the sweet juices of the prince come out sizzling. The texture remains firm—never slimy—and the flavor is a knockout. Try dipping prince slices in egg, then sautéing and serving with a drizzle of maple syrup for mushroom French toast. NOTE: Do not forage mushrooms if you don’t know what you’re doing. This blog post is not to be used for identification purposes.
Don’t know where to start? Fallen Fruit serves as a foraging resource and a guide to collecting fruit from public trees in Los Angeles and beyond. Another group, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, calls itself Guerrilla Grafters and stalks the streets, grafting branches of prized fruit varieties onto non-fruit-bearing sidewalk trees with the goal of cultivating a free food resource for public use. How cool is that?