September 11, 2012
Across the sun-drenched country, as far as the eye can see in the river-valley lowlands between the mountains, live armies of clones—millions and millions of fruit trees, each almost identical to every other nearby tree of its kind. These are the orchards of California’s Central Valley, fruit basket of America and one of the most fertile and wealthy agricultural regions in the world. Peaches, walnuts, almonds, pistachios, grapes and many more fruits are harvested here for eight months of the year—but what this productive region has in sheer volume it largely lacks in diversity. For just several varieties of each species constitute the bulk of the state’s produce market, and the Central Valley’s fruit orchards are, to use that dirty word of the agricultural cognoscenti, vast and unapologetic monocultures.
But tucked away on the western edge of this great valley is a small but glittering treasure—a farm containing almost a planet’s worth of biodiversity. Many have likened it to a Noah’s Ark of the world’s tree fruits, while those attuned to the vernacular of plant genetics call the site, located in Winters, California, a germplasm repository. Operated by the federal government with American tax dollars, Wolfskill Experimental Orchard includes more than 6,000 types of plants. Thousands of grape varieties, with two specimens of each vine, grow on the premises, as do hundreds of varieties each of walnuts, olives, peaches and almonds. Mulberries are grown here, too, and kiwis, and plums, and persimmons, and pistachios. And perhaps best of all, the Wolfskill Experimental Orchard is a public resource. Seeing the site by appointment, tasting fruit harvested by the staff and requesting wood for propagation are all welcomed.
And perhaps best of all, the Wolfskill Experimental Orchard is open to the public. Seeing the site, tasting the fruit and borrowing wood for propagation are all welcomed.
The best time to visit this remarkable farm is during one of the site’s annual tasting events. Most recently, Wolfskill’s managers hosted the always popular Fig Day. This annual September gathering draws farmers, hobbyists and general fig lovers from around California and even the country to taste across a spectrum of unusual figs, hear several short lectures on the various species grown at the Wolfskill property and tour the orchard itself. Howard Garrison, Wolfskill’s orchard manager and one of the chief fig experts in the state, had assembled a tasting table of sliced and diced figs of several varieties. Among them were the Calimyrna, the large and popular yellow-skinned fig imported from Turkey in the 1800s; the absurdly beautiful supermodel of the species—the Panache, or tiger-striped, fig; the fudgy-fleshed Santa Cruz Dark; the highly regarded Black Madeira; and the elegantly stemmed Pied de Boeuf (means “cow-foot” fig in French). Garrison also served platters of large green Excel figs wrapped with bacon and, for the vegetarians, just stuffed with goat cheese. Finally, Garrison delivered a brief talk on figs, their history and their botany. Among the scores of guests, one had brought with him a shoebox containing several show-and-tell figs of the most bizarre sort anyone present had seen. Harvested from a single, decades-old tree in Ventura County, this mystery fig, with its extremely elongated stem, delicate skin and honey-like flesh, baffled every geneticist, collector, farmer and hobbyist who had a close look. It was also a giant, with at least one fig from the tree weighing more than half a pound.
Fig Day 2012 also included an adjacent grape display and discussion arranged by Wolfskill’s grape horticulturalist, Bernie Prins. Prins had selected a half dozen of the 3,600-plus grape types in the orchard—almost all of them ripe and ready. Selections included the Kyoho grape, a Japanese giant about the size of a golf ball with a black skin; a golden brown, elongated hybrid grape that tasted faintly of chocolate and melon; and the show-stealing Black Hamburg, a musky, perfumey grape as shiny as obsidian.
A variety of tasting events are held at Wolfskill each year, and those who gag at the thought of figs (many people do) may take interest instead in the November persimmon and pomegranate tasting, the January kiwi tasting and the June mulberry and peach tasting. Visit their website to inquire about directions and the calendar of events—and if you go, don’t forget some cash for the donation pot.
But Wolfskill Experimental Orchard is not simply a venue for fruit-tasting events. The site is a public resource. John Preece, a USDA horticulturalist and researcher, told the small crowd before the tasting, “What we do here is preserve heirloom plants so they don’t go extinct, and then we make them available to anyone in the world who requests [wood for grafting or propagating] free of charge.” Farmers and gardeners may also submit online requests for wood cuttings by variety.
And John Baum, a member of the California Rare Fruit Growers, also took a moment to speak to the fig and grape tasters. “When you get home today, write to your congressmen and senators and tell them to support these operations,” Baum said. “Because there are people who think these collections should be run by private industries, and if industries controlled them, they would bulldoze up all the trees, because all they want are the market varieties.”
Which would leave us in a world of mostly black mission and brown Turkey figs—two industry staples of California. We might lose the huge and decadent black Zidi fig; the almost seedless, jelly-fleshed Mary Lane fig; the favorite cold-weather fig of Northwest gardeners, the green-skinned Desert King; and that supermodel of them all, the Panache.
Other fruit tastings:
Olives. A variety of events occur year-round in California.
Citrus. January, at UC Riverside.
Cherimoyas. February, at UC Irvine.
Strawberries. March, at UC Irvine.
Avocados. August, at UC Irvine.
Apples. Not an official tasting, but the USDA, which manages a huge apple collection in Geneva, New York, will be offering an open field day on September 22, where several apple varieties may be tasted.
What other tastings did we miss? Tell us about them in the comment box below.
The United States government has compiled a tremendous range of the existing diversity in many of the world’s cultivated food plant species—almost comprehensive, but not quite. That is, many varieties (or “genetic material,” as collectors often refer to their quarry) remain undiscovered in faraway places and uncollected. This means that the most exotic, most wonderful fruit tasting of all may be the one you host yourself while traveling. Want pomegranates? Go to Montenegro or Albania, where mountainsides are covered with wild pomegranates. Want grapes? Hike through the vine-draped forests of formerly Soviet Georgia. Want mangoes? The jungles of Borneo are thick with untasted varieties. Want figs? Try cycling through Greece, the Balkans or Turkey, one eye ever on the roadside.
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?
April 10, 2012
In faraway lands, a walk through the village street market is a sure bet for zeroing in on the best of a region’s edible fruits. And in spite of museums, adrenaline sports, helicopter tours, golf courses and all the other offerings cut out and polished for commercial tourism, I’ve often found the local bazaars and farmers markets to be the most exciting of exotic cultural experiences. New sights, smells and tastes meet you at each visit, and as you near the equator, the diversity of available local edibles increases until you may discover new fruits at every market stall. Watch for mamey sapotes in Cuba, blackberry jam fruits in Brazil, peanut butter fruits in Columbia, the lucuma in Peru, Sycamore figs in Yemen, mangosteens in Thailand—and that’s just the beginning of the long, long list. Following are a few suggestions, continuing from last week, of fruits (and one fruit wine) worth a journey to see and taste.
Jackfruit, South Asia. When a falling apple bonked the brain of Isaac Newton, the theory of gravity is said to have been born. But falling jackfruit can kill. This huge fruit, kin to the dainty mulberry, can weigh more than 100 pounds. Should you find yourself in the tropics on a sweltering day, hang your hammock in the shade of a guava tree, by all means—but beware of the jackfruit. The trees are common as cows in much of South Asia, and the oblong, green fruits are covered with a thick reptilian hide that exudes a sticky latex-like sap. Knives and hands should be greased with cooking oil before butchering a jackfruit. Inside are the edible parts—yellow rubbery arils that taste of banana, pineapple and bubblegum. The fruit is loved by millions, though the wood of the tree has value, and in Sri Lanka more than 11,000 acres of jackfruit trees are grown for lumber. The species occurs throughout the tropics today. In Brazil, where it was introduced in the late 1700s, it has become a favorite fruit as well as a problematic invasive species. Asian communities elsewhere around the world import jackfruits, many of which are grown in Mexico.
White Sapote, Mexico. A green-skinned apple lookalike with creamy, white flesh as juicy as a peach and as gratifying as a banana, the white sapote may be one of the most outstanding tree fruits in the New World. Though native to Mexico and Central America, it can be grown in temperate regions—as far north, even, as the foggy San Francisco Bay Area. I first met this fruit while cycling through Malibu, California, when I discovered hundreds of apple-sized orbs spilling from a pair of trees outside a driveway along Highway 1. I picked one up, found the fruit as soft and pliable as an avocado, and couldn’t resist taking a bite. I was stunned by the flavor and equally surprised that I had never seen this creature before, and I crawled into the culvert to salvage the fallen beauties. I packed about 20 pounds of bruised and oozing white sapotes into my saddlebags and, with a heavy heart, left perhaps 100 pounds more to spoil. That was in October 2004, and I suppose that the trees are still there. (If you go, harvest only the fallen fruit.) Just months later, I was walking through the desert mountains north of Cabo San Lucas on a dirt road that crosses the Baja Peninsula from El Pescadero on the Pacific coast eastward before the road connects with the main highway. Just before that intersection, I met a local ranch family who told me that in a nearby canyon was a semi-wild white sapote orchard. They spoke reverently of the trees and their fruit—but said I had just missed the season.
Fig, Greece and Turkey. A perfectly ripened fresh fig is soft and sweet as jam, making this Old World native essentially unable to withstand the rigors of long-distance travel or long-term storage. In effect, the fig is one of the very last fruits that is mostly unavailable outside the season and place where it is grown. Although Spanish missionaries tenderly packed fig cuttings with their guns and cannons and planted the lucrative food source throughout the New World, and although British explorers introduced the fig to the Pacific Islands and Australia, nowhere in the world do figs occur in such abundance as along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Portugal to Israel, Egypt to Morocco, and throughout the region’s islands, fig trees grow like weeds. Ravenous goats, worthless rock soils and never-ending drought, all in combination, cannot stop the miraculous fig, and the trees take over abandoned villages. They bust apart the cobblestones of bridges and castles, and they drop their fruits upon the world below. Esteemed cultivars grow in gardens and dangle over village fences. Wild seedlings and forgotten heirlooms grow in vacant lots and abandoned groves. In high season—August to October—sidewalks vanish as falling fruit accumulates like jam on the ground. Picking sacks full of figs is a sure bet in nearly every village below 3,000 feet. Greece and coastal Turkey are ground zero, but hundreds of varieties and millions of trees grow in Spain, Croatia, Italy, Portugal, France and Georgia—nearly anywhere in the region. Want to skip the high season and still get your fig kick? Then go to the island of Cyprus, where several local varieties ripen as late as December. Can’t travel until February? April? June? On parts of the Big Island of Hawaii, fig trees produce fruit year round.
Pawpaw, Appalachia. This is one fruit you may not find in your average farmers market. It’s been nicknamed “poor man’s banana” and described as “America’s forgotten fruit”—but why and how did we ever forget the pawpaw? It’s got the fetching qualities (as well as the DNA) of a tropical fruit, but this cold-tolerant species is as American as the Great Lakes, the swamps of Florida and the backwoods of the Appalachians. Abundant in places, it even occurs naturally in southern Ontario. Lewis and Clark encountered this relative of the cherimoya and were pleased by its creamy, custard-like flesh, and many people in the Eastern states are familiar with the pawpaw fruit, which may weigh five pounds and is the largest native edible fruit in America. On the shores of the Potomac River, pawpaw trees grow wild. Indeed, foraging may be the only way to taste this oddity. For whatever reason, pawpaws are scarcely cultivated and even more rarely sold in markets. So pack a machete and a fruit bowl and get thee to Kentucky. Take note: Kiwis call papayas pawpaws. That is, the “pawpaws” you see in New Zealand supermarkets are simply mislabeled papayas.
Cashew wine, Belize. I first described this specialty product of Belize two weeks ago. Cashew wine is not currently imported into or sold in the United States (or if it is, I haven’t heard about it) and short of having a friend pack a few bottles home on their next trek to Central America there may be no way other way than visiting Belize to have a taste (well, you can order it online, but that’s no fun). But it so happens that I was lucky enough to sample a bottle kindly sent to me last week by Travellers Liquors, the Belize-based maker of Mr. P’s Genuine Cashew Wine. Made from the fleshy cashew apple, Mr. P’s is tawny colored, like whiskey, on the sweet side and very aromatic. It smells and tastes like a lively stew of sour pineapple, molasses and maple syrup, with a strange and elusive hint of WD40—an exciting change of pace from the fermented juice of the grape. And here’s a morsel of jungle lore: Belizeans told me in 2002, as I traveled there for a month, that cashew wine will make a person drunk twice—once while drinking it, and again the next day if you should fall asleep in the sun.
I’ve surely missed a thousand other good fruits. More suggestions, anyone?
April 6, 2012
Eating locally grown produce may be the easiest way to help spare the planet the stresses of cross-global commerce, and many of us have been all but trained out of buying imported fruits (though we tend to ignore the exotic realities of bananas, coffee and cheap Australian wines). But what if we make a voyage across the world to eat their local specialties? Does that count as eating locally? Probably not—but there are some fruits so unique, so exotic and so tied up with the place and the people from which they emerged that one simply must travel to truly taste them. And here are just a few of the best, most historical, most charismatic of the world’s fruits. Go get them at the source.
Breadfruit, Polynesia. The food value of this whopper tree fruit and starchy staple of the tropics has been heralded for centuries. The fruit grows on beautiful, large-leaved trees and cooks up like something between potato and bread. The British first gave close consideration to the species in the 1760s as Captain James Cook sailed the Pacific. An onboard botanist named Joseph Banks observed the breadfruit and was impressed by its yields and quality. In 1787, Banks returned to the Polynesian breadfruit country, this time on the ill-fated HMS Bounty captained by William Bligh. The boat’s mission, before it was taken over by miscreants, was to collect breadfruit trees in Tahiti and transport them to the Caribbean to provide a new food source for slaves in the sugarcane fields. Today, breadfruit, like so many tropical fruits, has been introduced to nearly every suitable region around the equatorial waistline of the globe, and in many places the trees grow semi-wild. Hawaii is just one hotspot. In Holualoa, the Breadfruit Institute is home to the largest varietal collection of breadfruits in the world—a tidy orchard of 120 varieties. The institute also co-hosts the annual Breadfruit Festival, which took place in March, but in many places, breadfruit trees fruit year-round.
Pitahaya cactus fruit, Baja California. Not to be confused with the common prickly pear or with the pitaya dragon fruit, the pitahaya fruit is brilliant red, is prickled with needle-like spines that fall off as the fruit ripens and resembles a crimson kiwi when cut in two. The fruit occurs in the Sonoran Desert of Mexico, with the Baja California peninsula a center of abundance. The fruit grows from the long arms of the so-called “galloping cactus,” which anyone who visits Baja will see. The octopus-looking plants are a dull green and mostly unremarkable—until September. That’s when the bright red bulbs the size of apples swell into ripeness, and until December the feast is on. The fruits occur by the millions, and tequila-sipping cowboys, fishermen with the day off, families from the city and even a few tourists wearing backpacks all take to the desert to pursue the pitahaya, filling buckets and bringing them home like many northerners do with wild blackberries. October is a sure hit for the pitahaya on the southern half of the Baja peninsula. The best bet: Bring camping gear and go out a-walkin’. Beware of the sun, and watch out for rattlesnakes. The fruits should be attacked with a knife, sliced in two, and eaten with a spoon like a kiwi. A piece of pitahaya trivia: Local indigenous people historically feasted on pitahayas in the fall, and toward the end of the season they sifted the many small seeds from their communal latrines to grind into flour.
Salmonberry, Southeast Alaska. Going to the Pacific Northwest this July? Then watch the berry bushes closely. You’ll see raspberries and blueberries and blackberries—and a lesser known one called the salmonberry. As tender and soft as a raspberry, the salmonberry is about the size of a farm-grown strawberry. That is, the things are huge. I discovered the salmonberry in 1999 on Prince of Wales Island, where my brother and I spent five weeks backpacking, hitchhiking and fishing for salmon. Salmonberry thickets lined most streams and roads, and many afternoons we set aside our fly rods to pick berries. The abundance was mind-boggling, and we would fill our Nalgene bottles in just minutes, each down a full quart of pulverized salmonberries, and then return to the brambles to fill our bottles for dinner. One afternoon, we rappelled down a cliff to access a particularly thick patch. We often dodged black bears working the same patches. We ate salmonberries until we couldn’t move, and when we could stand again, we went back for more. We grilled up sockeye salmon every day for lunch and dinner, and we often drizzled hot salmonberry reduction over the fillets. We feasted on these exciting new berries until the season petered out in August. Then we went home, and we have never seen a salmonberry since—but Michael and I still talk about the summer of ’99, the summer of the salmonberry.
Porcini mushroom, Italy. As surely as the apple is the fruit of the tree, the mushroom is the fruit of the fungus—and perhaps no edible mushroom is so unmistakable or such a sure find in the times and places that it grows as Boletus edulis. Called cep in French, king bolete in English and manatarka in Bulgarian, this mushroom is the famous porcini in Italy. Here, this giant, brown-capped mushroom fruits in huge abundance in the late summer and fall. The species tends to grow among chestnut trees throughout southern Europe, and following the first of the autumn rains, the forest floor erupts. Local hunters swarm the woods. Until the winter frost ends the season, households grow fragrant with the nutty, smoky scent of drying and frying porcini, much of the harvest destined for pasta sauces. Can’t get to Italy? That’s fine, because Boletus edulis spores have drifted around the Northern Hemisphere, and in China, California, New York, Greece and Russia, the porcini mushroom grows. Note: The species occurs among different trees in different places—Douglas fir forests in the Pacific Northwest, Monterey pines in Central California and mixed deciduous forests on the Eastern Seaboard. But be smart, and only hunt mushrooms with an experienced forager, and if in doubt, throw it out—not into your risotto.
Durian, Thailand. Just as a wine writer is sure to speak again and again of the tireless Pinot Noir, a writer with an interest in fruits must pay regular tribute to the durian. This spiky and musky-odored beast is called the “king of fruits” in Southeast Asia and can be found worldwide in most large cities with thriving Asian communities—but these imported durians, usually from Thailand, are generally ones that have been frozen. They’re delicious, but fresh off the tree, the durian, which includes multiple species of the genus Durio, is said to be an experience just short of heavenly—the onion-vanilla flavor of its custard-like flesh amplified in every tantalizing way. In the jungles of Southeast Asia, Borneo and Indonesia, locals keep their ears tuned to the trees during the late-spring peak of durian season. Upon hearing a heavy thwunk, they go prowling—seeking the freshly fallen fruit, which is said to lose much of its aroma and flavor in mere hours after harvest. Journalist David Quammen described the hunt for durians on the forest floor in his collection of essays The Boilerplate Rhino. Author Adam Gollner praised the durian in The Fruit Hunters while giving a wary nod to a bizarre subculture of nomads who call themselves durianarians, who camp their way through Asia following the durian season. And in the mid-1800s, durian-lover Alfred Russel Wallace famously wrote that making a journey to the Southeast Asian durian districts is well worth the weeks of sailing just to have a taste. Even tigers, though built for beef-eating, can’t resist durians.
Next week: More fruits to eat locally when traveling globally.
September 8, 2011
Two times while cycling in Greece on lengthy solo tours I have entered a range of mountains that crosses the northeastern edge of the nation. The dark slopes were blanketed with pines, and thunderheads skulked among the peaks. And each time as I ascended into the gloomy, chilly heights, a strange apprehension crept over me, spooking me back into sunny, familiar Greece and leaving the mysterious Balkan nation on the north side a blank place on my cognitive world map.
But for the past hour I’ve been perusing a borrowed Lonely Planet guidebook, gleaning the essential vocabulary and phraseology for where I’m finally going: Bulgaria. I leave in 24 hours and must know when I arrive how to say “where,” “how far,” “village,” kilometers,” “alone,” “water,” “figs,” “road to____” and “cheese.” Some numbers and a few pronouns, too, will facilitate a smooth journey, which will begin just as soon as I reassemble my bicycle in the Sofia airport, ride out of the city and make my getaway into the nearest hills to camp—maybe to the Vitosha Nature Park, a wilderness just a few miles south of town.
Why Bulgaria? Several reasons: First, I’ve never been there. Second, Bulgaria is situated in what I perceive as the “Old World Fig Belt”—a magical land where the confluence of Mediterranean climate and ancient agrarian culture produce a bounty of free figs to be eaten along nearly any roadside, and what on a thousand-mile bicycle ride is better than that? Third, I’m attracted to Bulgaria because of its mountains—several ranges low enough to be green but high enough to be wild. (That truest signature of a wild place even lives in Bulgaria’s mountains—the brown bear, Ursus arctos, between 600 and 1000 animals in two distinct populations.) Fourth, Bulgaria is eastern enough not to be mundanely western, northern enough not to crush me with heat, and southern enough not be promiscuously rainy.
I’ve had it with this Lonely Planet book. Traveling should be a form of learning, but this darn guidebook keeps blowing Bulgaria’s secrets. I just read, for instance, that espresso is prevalent in coffee-loving Bulgaria. That’s great news—but wouldn’t it have been a wonderful surprise for me to discover this on my own after arriving with a stomach steeled for Nescafe? I also have learned from these pages that Bulgarians nod for no and shake their heads for yes. This is key and vital information—yet slapstick comedy could have gotten no finer than if I had arrived in Sofia no wiser than I was an hour ago. I’ll sneak a few more vocabulary basics from this book, then close it and let the adventures begin.
Bulgaria is layered with relics and shadows of the Thracians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Bulgars, the Ottoman Turks and the Soviet era. Democracy resumed in 1989, and now modernity has befallen this freshly inaugurated member of the European Union. For better or for worse, resorts are now appearing rapidly on both Black Sea beaches and mountainsides—yet I will dodge them. I intend to camp “rough” in the shrubbery most nights, and since Bulgaria occupies 42,823 square miles of the Earth’s surface while containing just 7 million people, rough camping should be easy. What I mean is, consider Italy, where 60 million souls occupy 116,000 square miles: 515 people per square mile. The United Kingdom is even denser, with 660 people per square mile. India, spare me, has 900-plus. But Bulgaria’s population density measures out at a quiet 160 folks per square mile (with, sadly, only a hundredth of a bear per square mile).
I box my bike tonight and fly out at dawn. I bring with me a sleeping bag, a toothbrush, a pocketknife, a journal, a corkscrew and other select items. I pack along, too, a piece of advice handed to me from another experienced cyclist: “If you go Bulgaria,” he said grimly, “God defend you, and bring a spear. The dogs are the devil.” Yikes. Is it too late for London?