Fruit of the Garden Isle

“When is your aunt arriving from New York?” I asked a friend recently. “The middle of mango season!” she replied. That meant June, July or August, probably not November, December or January. Had she said “papayas,” a year-round crop, the answer would have been meaningless. But mango season or lychee season—that’s a different story. Even with a plethora of new varieties blurring the seasonal boundaries, mangoes usually mean summer. While New Englanders mark their leaf-peeping season by dusting off their binoculars in the fall, Islanders observe the seasons by the comings and goings of fruit (and whales, flowers, migratory birds and winter surf, too). These year-round seasonal cycles allow us to taste our way through the months and savor the ebb and flow of the juicy treats that add richness to our days.

According to Ken Love of Captain Cook, executive director of the nonprofit Hawai‘i Tropical Fruit Growers, there were 78 fruit displays at the group’s 20th annual conference on Kaua‘i in September 2010. It was the second-largest exhibit in the history of the organization, with dozens of different displays devoted to fruit from throughout the Hawaiian Islands. In a magnificent poster put out by Love’s organization, 163 exotic fruit appear from Hawai‘i Island alone, a potent indication of why volcanic soil is a mother lode for fruit lovers.

You need only check out the Hilo Farmers Market, or smaller farmers markets in Waimea, Volcano, Kailua-Kona and beyond, to glimpse the full glory of the island’s fertility. From jack fruit to white pineapple, strawberries to rambutan—and the queenly mangosteen, which sells out fast—they all appear in a year-round pageant of color and flavor. The community markets are the best way to taste fresh-off-the-tree local produce in their eye-popping diversity. Many local growers sell their produce only at these farmers’ markets, so you’ll likely stumble upon treasures available nowhere else. For more information on Island fruit, go to www.hawaiifruit.net or www.hawaiitropicalfruitgrowers.org. From mangoes to rambutan and everything in between, here’s a seasonal primer for fruit lovers.

PAPAYAS AND PINEAPPLES
Papayas and pineapples are available year-round, but everything depends on weather. Pineapples are sweetest in the summer, and the sweetest papayas come from whichever areas are sunniest at the time of fruiting. The rainier, denser areas may not produce the same caliber of papayas and pineapples as the drier areas, but areas with ample sun, good irrigation and drainage, such as Kapoho, produce superior papayas. This island is famous for Kapoho papayas and low-acid white pineapples, a sweet, pale pineapple with extraordinary flavor and none of the bite of more heavily acidic types. The superstar papaya varieties are Kapoho, Sunshine, Rainbow and, on O’ahu, Kahuku.

MANGOES
Once an exclusively summer fruit, local mangoes are now available year-round in many Hawai‘i locations. But while new varieties and unpredictable weather have prolonged the season, summer is still prime time for mangoes. It’s all tied in with the flowers, say the growers. If the mango blossoms survive the spring winds, there will be mangoes in the summer.-

“Hawaiian Mangoes,” a poster produced by Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers, shows 55 varieties of this multi-colored fruit. A footnote explains that at least seven other varieties are not shown on the poster. With this many mangoes being grown in Hawai‘i’s many microclimates, it was only natural that the once sacrosanct mango season would shed its limitations. From the Ah Ping to the Gouveia, Harders, Momi K, Pope, Keitt, Kinney and Rapoza, the mangoes range from good to excellent and are available from June (often earlier) through October. The fiberless, tangy, elegant White Pirie, the
ne plus ultra of mangoes, has a shorter season than most—July—and is harder to find.

The well-known Haden is the most widely planted mango in Hawai‘i, says Love. With Richard Bowen and Kent Fleming of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, he authored a report that points to the Haden’s usually fibrous texture, “undesirable alternate-year bearing habit” and “marginal quality and poor shelf life” as reasons it’s less desirable than the others. While you can usually find local mangoes from the end of April to the end of October, they won’t be in commercial quantities outside of its premium season: June, July and August.

LYCHEES
This rough-skinned, ambrosial fruit is a summer sizzler—and gorgeous to behold as it dangles from the trees in bright red clusters. Lychees are a Hilo signature, requiring seasonal variations in temperature (including a winter chill) for best results. Lychees are strictly a summer fruit, and while you may see some for sale in supermarkets, it’s the backyard growers at farmers markets who are likely to have them fresh and in saleable quantities—and definitely local. Lychees are rarely abundant and are superior to the imports, says Love, because they contain about 15 percent more sugar. Its skin should be bright red and supple; brown and brittle is a no-no. Out-of-the-ordinary weather may extend the season by a month or two, but June-July is always peak season for lychees. Some varieties have a triangular shape, indicating a small seed and lots of fleshy sweetness, superior qualities to connoisseurs. Because not every lychee is considered equal, some Island kids are trained early in life to identify the “small-seed” lychee by its shape.

LONGAN
It’s sweeter and smaller than lychee, with smooth, leathery skin and a strong, highly perfumed, aromatic flavor. Also known as dragon’s eye, it’s growing in popularity islandwide. Crisp and tender, with a moonstone-like translucence, longans follow lychees on the seasonal cycle, appearing from August to early October.

BANANAS
Like pineapples and papayas, bananas grow year-round and are abundant and easy to find. Most foodies go bananas over the shorter, rounder apple bananas, which eclipse the standard Williams and Cavendish varieties and usually cost more. Local apple bananas have a pleasing tartness, firm texture, and are usually moister than the standard banana. There are more than 50 varieties of bananas in Hawai‘i, so they’re in ample supply year-round.

RAMBUTAN
These furry red fruit are attention-grabbers, flamboyant and otherworldly. Under the tough, hairy skin is a delicate, translucent fruit resembling the lychee, but crisper and milder in flavor. Some types of rambutan are available year-round, but most fruit in the fall. Local rambutan has an 8 percent higher sugar content than imports. “Some rambutan will fruit twice a year,” Love points out. “It’s caused by stress or drought or rain; there are so many variables.”

MANGOSTEEN
This is the queen of all fruit, relatively new to Island markets and available in limited supply from September through December. Beyond its tough purple outer skin is a creamy, custard-like fruit in a tight cluster. Its flavor and texture are superb—sweet and creamy, delicate and ambrosial, with a pleasing tang. Not surprisingly, it’s said mangosteen was Queen Victoria’s favorite fruit, and many share that opinion.