Saturday, September 5, 2009

Star Struck

Many years ago, I briefly attended a small liberal arts college in Vermont which I chose based not on its academics or reputation, but merely because it was the most beautiful place I had ever seen. Students lived in clapboard houses, there was a secret walled garden on campus and in Fall, the Green Mountains blazed red, yellow and orange with foliage that tourists, called "Leaf Peepers," would travel days just to admire. I loved it. Vermont was the opposite of Florida with its covered bridges and Norman Rockwell villages. It was everything I thought I loved. Especially though, I adored the apple trees. There were at least three in the yard of every house and small orchards surrounded the classroom buildings. Apples were in abundance. There were so many that we students, all five hundred of us, let most of them rot on the ground where they turned to vinegar and called the yellow jackets. By October things got rather messy around the trees, but this time of year, in the beginning of September when the students were just returning, those apple trees were loaded with dusty, pink, pale green and crimson orbs and everyone from freshmen to seniors to faculty couldn't stay away from them. Coming to Vermont from Florida, where such things just didn't exist, I couldn't get over the miracle of apple trees. There were trees and you could just walk by and pick apples. Pick them! And eat them! It is a miracle I didn't eat myself sick on them.

I've written before about how much I love and miss apples, about how apples define the season for me and about how dearly I miss Autumn. Living in an alternative climate has forced me to redefine a lot of the ways in which I view the passing of a year, how I eat and who I am in relation to the natural world around me. There are things about life in the tropics that I am passionate about, but still, I pine. Still, I want to pick apples from trees at the start of a new school year. I want. I want. I want.

But yesterday, I had an unexpected gift.

I'm not a student anymore. Now, I'm the teacher and I'm lucky enough to teach on what has to be the most beautiful college campus in South Florida. I teach an early morning class with a two hour break before my early afternoon class. During those free hours I like to stroll the grounds which are really like one enormous botanical garden. I enjoy looking at the diversity of tropical plant life.

Yesterday morning I noticed a small commotion of students around a tree where a groundskeeper in a little golf cart, was handing out some sort of fruit and the students were absolutely overjoyed about it. Really, you have never seen a bunch of eighteen to twenty year olds so excited about something. I had to see what was going on.

The groundskeepers were harvesting from a carambola tree. You probably know the carambola as a starfruit. Some of the fruits had to be cut down from the tree, while others were picked up off the ground, a little dirty, but sweetly ripe and fragrant. There were plenty of them to go around and I was lucky enough to receive one too. The groundskeeper made sure that he dutifully told each student to wash their carambola before eating and students rushed to water fountains to rinse the soil away before eating the fruit whole, out of hand. The brief event took on such a celebratory, exuberant energy. I felt so lucky and so joyful to be a part of it; to be part of the whole back to school excitement. With starfruit. How very wonderful and how very unique to this strange, different place where I live.

The carambola, as the fruit is known in Spanish, is called a starfruit because when sliced horizontally, the pieces are shaped like perfect, five-pointed stars. This has made the carambola a great novelty and the fruit is very popular as a garnish, because, of course, who wouldn't want stars studding their fruit salads, desserts, cocktails and buffet platters? The star fruit though, is more than just a garnish. It is a fruit that is delicious and versatile in its own right, just like an apple. Also like apples, there are many, many varieties of carambola, each with its own unique flavor and uses.

In South Florida, where the trees do very well in home gardens, there are two main kinds of starfruit: tart and sweet. The tart variety is mainly used for juice and makes a wonderful alternative to orange juice, which it is similar to. The sweet variety, which is slightly smaller and darker, is best for eating plain. In South Florida the most common tart variety is the Golden Star, while Arkin (named for Alan?) is the sweet kind you're most likely to find around here. Both are good. For more on these, visit this site which also has some interesting recipes.

My starfruit yesterday appears to have been an Arkin. It was very sweet and had a delightful candied scent and flavor reminiscent of jasmine or orange blossom. The skin was waxy and completely edible and the flesh was crisp, yet delicate. Carambolas have a gentle, never bitter, strong or overpowering citrus flavor. There were a few seeds, some of which I have saved for my future orchard. One day when I get a house my future carambola tree can live beside my future avocado tree.

Until yesterday, I had never seen people eating carambola out of hand, like apples. I had only seen them sliced and spangled over various confections, always a decoration, a supporting player and never the "star" of the dish. Yesterday, at school, I think I may have fallen a little in love. No, we don't have apples here in the tropics, but maybe apples are a little cliche anyway. What a tired image of the apple for the teacher. This teacher needs a carambola, an odd, little candy-smelling fruit; a star shining in a system of round, planet-like oranges and apples. It's perfectly South Florida and it's something we only have here (starfruit trees don't do well north of about Martin County).

The famous line from Song of Solomon demands "comfort me with apples." Here in the tropics, from now on I think I'll request to be "comforted with starfruit."

More on the Carambola:

A Warning! Starfruit contains the same compound as grapefruit which causes the effects of certain medications to be magnified in the body. If your medicine says not to take it with grapefruit, avoid the carambola as well.

If you have kidney problems you should also not eat this fruit as it contains small amounts of Oxalic Acid. Normally this is safe, but in people with compromised kidney function this can cause renal failure.

Information about growing your own carambola.

Here is a
List of Carambola Recipes from Fairchild Gardens.

I like to eat my starfruit sliced in a green salad and I've also had this served with a vinaigrette made from starfruit juice.
Camellia Street Grille, in Everglades City, which is one of my favorite restaurants for enjoying a true, authentic taste of South Florida, serves this salad and it's heaven. The restaurant is currently on vacation until October 1st, so you'll have to wait a month to try it.

A commenter on the avocado post recommends a starfruit and Lula Avocado salad, which can't be bad either.

1 comment:

  1. Alas, living in South Florida does not mean you have to do without apples. They have been grown for years in warm climates and the tropics much farther towards the equator than you. One of my favorite apples, Dorsett Golden, is from the Bahamas. But Rome Beauty is also a tropical favorite grown in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Wealthy (from Minnesota) is grown in Nicaragua. An Israeli apple called Anna is grown all over the world in hot climates, yet most of the traditional apple-growing regions have never heard of it and cannot grow this excellent apple (it blossoms in January). So don't give up hope, plant an apple tree.

    Kevin Hauser
    Kuffel Creek Apple Nursery
    Riverside, Southern California