Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Picking Citrus

At first when I thought about becoming a Locavore in the tropics, I thought it would mean only buying food grown nearby, but it isn’t. To me eating locally was a reaction against gluttonous mass consumption. We eat too much and we buy too much and I want to reduce my bad habits in both areas to benefit myself and the world I live in. Sure, I’ll have to buy food. It’s unavoidable, but I want to look for alternate and creative ways to eat locally that don’t involve more consumerism. I hope to discover free culinary resources in my environment. Two ways to reduce consumption are by foraging and by growing your own food. In my experiment, I'm trying both.

In Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he goes foraging for mushrooms. Mushrooms grow freely in the forest and experts in mushroom identification know where to forage them, picking themselves a free meal. I like the idea of free food growing in the world around me. Some of my best childhood memories are of picking wild blackberries, stuffing most of them in my mouth, staining my fingers inky purple. But we don’t have mushrooms and blackberry brambles in the tropics. Ok, we probably do have mushrooms, but God knows what kind they’d be and I don’t trust myself to pick and eat them. I can see myself either ending up dead or at best tripping my eyeballs out on a beach somewhere, local eating the last thing on my mind. I wondered what other edible treats grew around here that I could pick though.

Having first thought of fruit, I decided to take a walk around my neighborhood, Fort Lauderdale’s Victoria Park, to see what I could find. Victoria Park is in downtown Fort Lauderdale, a couple miles west of the beach and seemed promising because there are a lot of trees, most of which look wild or at least native. This is rare in South Florida where many people live in meticulously planned developments with velvet lawns and sculpted shrubbery. I didn’t even make it down my street before I found several things to eat.

Green coconuts litter the gutters and literally hundreds of them hang from neighborhood trees. Coconuts are everywhere. Luckily I really love coconuts and in my almost nine years of living in South Florida with these things all over the place, I had never thought to actually eat one. On my walk I also noticed that most yards boasted at least one variety of fruit tree. I counted several papaya, tamarind, carambola (star fruit), lychee, mango, cocoplums and Surinam cherries. The last two are popular ornamentals down here and few people know that the fruits are edible. I'm trying to work the nerve up to pick and eat them. I'll keep you updated on that.

If I had gone on my same walk ten years ago I’m sure I would have seen a bounty of citrus trees; limes, lemons, oranges and grapefruit, but unfortunately an epidemic of citrus canker, which began in Miami in 1995 forced the state of Florida to cut down and ban almost all new plantings of citrus trees, lest the disease spread to the lucrative citrus groves in central Florida. Citrus trees for personal use, once ubiquitous, are now rare, however it is possible to still grow your own. You simply must purchase your seedlings from a state certified nursery.

On my first walk I only found one orange tree and it was in someone's backyard with a few branches hanging over a fence into an alley. I didn't want to steal someone else's oranges, but I found one orange, freshly fallen and not at all rotten, resting on the ground so I picked it up and brought it home. Compared to a bag of local, organic oranges I had purchased at Publix, the alley orange was indistinguishable. It ended up contributing to a pitcher of freshly squeezed juice.

I decided to scout out my parents' neighborhood to see what might be growing there. They live a couple blocks west of the beach in Fort Lauderdale and their neighborhood is more sparsely wooded than mine. I didn't expect to find a lot, but in my parents' neighborhood I really scored when I found an unusual species of citrus.

Every neighborhood has that overgrown abandoned house that all the kids think is haunted. Often it's the subject of double dares and triple dares and kids shudder when walking past it. There's a house like this at the end of my parents' street. No one has lived in it forever and it's rumored to be in foreclosure. For several months the yard was untended, but recently someone came and cut the grass. Most of the yard is shaded by a mature mango tree, but on my walk I noticed an usual tree behind the mango. It looked like an orange tree for all intents and purposes except the oranges were tiny - about the size of a jawbreaker and just as round.

At first I thought they were kumquats, but kumquats are oval and these fruits were perfectly spherical. I picked a couple and took them home for further research.

After an intense round of googling search terms like "little tiny oranges" I finally managed to figure out what these things were. They're called calamondins and they grow well here in Florida. Most people plant them as ornamentals, but calamondins are perfectly edible. You can just pop the whole thing in your mouth, skin and all.

Big mistake. Calamondins are heart-stoppingly sour. Wow are they tart. Oh my Lord are calamondins puckery. They made my eyes water.

Surely there was a use for them. I couldn't just let a whole tree, weighed down by ripe fruit, all rot on the branch and decay on the ground in the yard of an abandoned house, so I looked up calamondin recipes and learned that they make a great marmalade.

I didn't feel comfortable taking any more fruit from this tree. I didn't know for sure who the tree really belonged to. I felt like I was trespassing, so I checked with all the neighbors, one of whom owns half the tree. Once I knew that everything was ok, I picked about 40 calamondins (the number the marmalade recipe called for) and brought them home to start my next project: home canning!

More on that later.

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