On our last day of the trip, our friend David in St. Lucia picked some red, ripe coffee beans (aka cherries) off of the Arabica bush, one for each of us, and instructed us to bite through the thick skin with our teeth.
Next, he said, remove the beans and put them in your mouth, but don’t bite them.
We were all surprised to discover that the thin layer of pulp covering the bean had a sweet, citrus taste, not unlike the delicious fruit that covers the fresh cacao beans! Who knew? My mind was blown.
This is one of the things I cherish most about that trip. We experienced new tastes and delightful discoveries nearly everyday. And some days were bursting with more than my brain could take in.
I think I’ll go make myself a cappuccino now.
Two years ago I wrote about my disappointing experience eating fresh cacao in Cuba. Cacao (Theobroma cacao) is the tree that chocolate comes from. The fruit is a big pod that forms directly on the trunk and older growth of the tree. It kind of looks like a squash and smells like one too.
Chocolate is made by fermenting, sun drying, and sometimes slow roasting the little beans that form inside the pod. However, a sweet, white, and sticky flesh grows around the beans that can be eaten fresh out of the pod. Eating that fresh flesh was on my list of things to do before I die; however, my first attempt was thwarted by an over-ripe pod that was neither sweet nor sticky and kind of tasted like a giant eraser for BIG mistakes.
When we were planning this trip I knew that we would come into contact with fresh cacao again and that I was not going to miss the opportunity to have a proper do-over. Still, I thought trying cacao in Dominica would mean making a special trip to a cacao plantation, but it turns out that cacao trees grow practically everywhere on the island. The tree grows well in mountain regions where the weather is humid and shaded by taller forest trees. That pretty much describes the entire island of Dominica, save the city where we stayed and a handful of dryer areas on the west coast.
Most flights come into Dominica on the east coast and it’s about an hour and half drive through the interior to get to the capital, Roseau. I must have spotted a million cacao trees along the route, although we did not stop to pick one on that day. I had hoped I could buy one from the market, but while I did purchase several unusual items there I never did see a cacao pod for sale. I think that may be simply because it is so easy to come by. Why buy one at the market when you can pick a pod right off the tree growing in your own yard?
At one time just about everyone in Dominica grew bananas. Stabilized market prices made it possible for farmers to etch out a humble prosperity growing and selling bananas for export to the UK. But Dominica’s small-scale banana farmers can no longer compete with the massive plantation output of Latin America’s big banana business. Between that and a destabilized market, growing bananas does not provide a living wage.
Still, wherever you go in Dominica, you’re bound to run into a banana tree or two. Or several. Possibly a hillside covered in them. And now that I’ve had so much exposure to this primitive plant, I think I have a pretty good idea of how it grows and an even larger sense of awe about just how weird it is.
The big purple dangling thing in the photo is the flower heart. The flowers develop underneath the bracts, which peel back as the flowers form fruit.
In truth, I believe the plant in the photo is actually a type of plantain, not a banana. We made this mistake at the market a few times, as I have never seen such small plantains for sale in Canada. I thought I knew about the breadth and scope of banana types, but being in Dominica showed me just how wide the variety really is.
If you’d like to learn more about the banana industry in the Caribbean, I’d also recommend the documentary, Life and Debt, which has a small but eye-opening segment on what has happened with the EU and how impossible it is for small-scale, fair wage farmers to compete with big agro-business.
Day one of our big trip has just passed and I’ve already managed to try a new fruit. I expected to eat a lot of my favourite fruit on this trip, but I didn’t anticipate finding anything, besides breadfruit, that I haven’t tried already.
We half walked, half bussed our way to the nearest town today. I made a b-line for a sidewalk fruit stand the second we got off the bus as I am on a mission to eat my weight in custard apples. The vendor didn’t have any of those, but while perusing the table I spotted something I had never seen before. At first I thought it was a mango, but I had heard that mango season is over. Did you know there are lots and lots of varieties of mango that come in all colours and sizes? No bother to me since I’m allergic.
Good thing I made a double take and realized that the golden fruit on the table were not mangos.
“What are these?”
“Golden apple.” Pointing to apples, “These are your apples.” Pointing to the new fruit, “And these are our apples. They are also called June apple.”
“Oh, I know them by that name. I tried one at home but it was green. Obviously not ripe. I didn’t like it. What do they taste like ripe?”
For a dollar she sold us one golden apple (Spondias dulcis), and peeled it so we could eat it right away.
I’d say it tastes sweet and slightly sour, exactly like a cross between a mango and an orange, but less intensely flavoured. The texture was a bit crunchy and got a bit stringy nearer to the pit, a lot like a mango. Thankfully, unlike a mango, my lips did not swell on contact.
Later that day we returned to the same stand and bought another for the returning customer fee of 50 cents.
Nope, we haven’t left for the tropics yet, although it’s probably starting to look like it based on the pictures I’ve been posting. In this last week before we leave I’ve been looking back on a previous trip to Cuba in anticipation of the sort of flora and food we might see in The Lesser Antilles.
I took this picture in the countryside, just outside the gates of this cemetery. I had absolutely no idea what the tree was and tried to glean some information from two girls that were sitting nearby. My ability to speak Spanish is extremely limited and rather pathetic actually, but you’d be surprised by how much you can communicate with infant level language skills and hand gestures. The trick, I’ve found, is to be friendly, bold, and to not succumb to the frustration of feeling pathetic. The worst culture shock I have experienced was on our first trip to Mexico. I felt so helpless to communicate and was too nervous and self-conscious most of the time to even try. I lost out on a lot of learning and experiences due to a fear of looking like an idiot. Since then I have learned that most people are keen to try if you show real interest and effort.
The girls indicated that the plant was a noni tree, and seemed to suggest it was edible but I’m afraid that I did not try a taste when I had the chance. They seemed disinterested in the fruit, and I figured ingesting a fruit I was not familiar with in the middle of nowhere was probably not a wise idea. Let’s just say, I’ve had some bad experiences in this area before. Lesson learned.
Interestingly enough the fruit is also known as Indian mulberry, a name that is not surprising given that the noni does look like an over-sized, white mulberry. However, it is not related to mulberries and is instead related to coffee.
Wikipedia says noni trees are very drought tolerant and able to thrive in a wide assortment of soil conditions. We found this tree growing in very sandy soil about 30 feet or so from the ocean. I don’t think I saw another tree on that trip and I wonder if I will see it on any of the islands we will be visiting shortly.