Natural Foods Merchandiser

Exotic Fruit Brightens Winter From Seattle to St. Cloud

Sure, Christmas trees and Kwanzaa candles brighten up the darkest days of winter. But those last only a few days, or weeks at best (let's face it—if you're stretching the holiday lights beyond that, you're annoying your customers). But you can legitimately offer them bright holiday cheer that lasts a lot longer by stocking the season's tropical and subtropical fruit. And we're not talking just oranges and grapefruits here.

Many retailers are understandably reluctant to stock too many offbeat fruits, though, for fear their very exoticness may intimidate customers. That's a mistake, says Robert Schueller, assistant marketing director at Melissa's World Variety Produce in Los Angeles. "The mom-and-pop stores want to differentiate from the big guys—carry a product mix that's exciting or different," he says. "How are you going to get the person to come to your store if you don't have something different?" Schueller reminds retailers that it's nearly impossible for smaller naturals stores to compete on price with the naturals supermarkets.

For the chronically timid, though, a good starting point is with the clementine, perhaps the most familiar of the "world" fruits. Generally, they're available from late October through March, with the sweetest specimens shipped in December. Introduced to the United States as recently as 1982, clementines have become a favorite stocking stuffer. Their small size, easy-to-peel skin and seedlessness make them a great alternative to candy for kids. And, the myth surrounding their origins can make for interesting signage.

One legend has it that Father Clement, an Algerian monk, accidentally created the clementine around 1900. While tending his garden of mandarin oranges at his orphanage, it's said, he found a natural variation and nurtured it, developing the "clementino" tree. More scientifically inclined types believe that this orange-mandarin hybrid was developed in Asia prior to 1900, then migrated with humans to the Mediterranean region.

Winter Jewels
Also gaining in popularity are cara cara oranges. A navel orange with pink fruit, the cara cara is low in acidity and mellow in taste, says Schueller.

When selecting either clementines or cara caras, look for a glossy, rich orange-colored skin and firm fruit that seems weighty for its size. The skin should never be puffy or shriveled. Promote these citrus not just for their sweet taste and convenience but also for their nutrition. Both are high in vitamin C, and clementines also have significant amounts of folate, fiber and vitamin A.

Among the more familiar exotics, Schueller also likes starfruit. A lot of people have had bitter experiences with the ones grown in Florida, he says, but the starfruit now being imported from Taiwan have a bright taste that matches their appearance. Unlike the domestically grown specimens, Taiwanese starfruit are yellow to orange in color, not green, and are at their peak from August through November.

If you're looking for something really unusual to liven up your produce bins, try introducing the dragon fruit, also known as pitaya. It's a member of the cactus family, a surprise given its hot pink color and baseball size and shape. Weighing as much as three pounds apiece, the fruit has white pulp and tiny black seeds. The flavor most closely resembles kiwi and coconut. It's also high in fiber and vitamin C. Available from August through November, many people use dragon fruit's striking looks for decor.

The same fate used to befall the pomegranate, but lately its popularity has transformed it from a decoration to a winter delicacy. Looking something like a misshapen, mid-century bocce ball, its interior belies expectations, with hundreds of sweet, magenta, juice-filled sacs, called arils, each with a tiny, piquant seed inside. In fact, each pomegranate is said to contain precisely 613 of the tart-sweet gems—the same number of commandments found in the Torah, or the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Some theologians also believe that it was a pomegranate, not an apple, that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. This biblical significance may resonate well with consumers around the holidays—if you make the effort to let them know about it.

You'll need good eyes and ears to select the best pomegranates. They should be full-colored and have a tinny sound when tapped. If the skin is cracked, the fruit may be overripe. Once picked, however, pomegranates have an exceptionally long shelf life. If refrigerated, they keep for up to seven months and actually become juicier and sweeter as time goes on. That's a good thing, because the harvest season is fairly short, from October through December. Their cost reflects this, as well as the fact that they must be hand-picked, using color and size as indicators of ripeness.

The fruit can be used on salads and in soups and sorbets. It even makes a striking addition to guacamole. One grower markets bottled pomegranate juice, called POM Wonderful, and extols its high polyphenol antioxidant properties. Need more material for your signage? Some people use the juice, with its indelible stains, as a dye. The pomegranate is also widely seen as a symbol of fertility and abundance.

Then again, some people still use it just for decoration, taking advantage of the deeply hued fruit's holiday colors in wreaths and floral arrangements.

Fruit For Love And Money
Another evocative fruit is the Buddha's hand. Closely related to the lemon, it has spiky tendrils emanating from its center. "It looks like a big grapefruit with long fingers on it," says Schueller. It usually retails for $7 to $15 and is most commonly sold as a gift for the Chinese New Year, imbued as it is with symbolism for health, happiness and wealth. Fruits with the "fingers" closed into a fist are especially desirable, since closed hands represent prayer. Retailers can educate consumers about its other uses as an aromatic ingredient in baked goods.

Less showy but equally remarkable is the quince, one of the world's oldest known fruits, cultivated in Asia and the Mediterranean for more than 4,000 years. Ancient Romans used it as a symbol of love, much as we now use roses. Available from September through December, the fruit should be refrigerated and wrapped to prevent bruising. Ranging in color from pale green to a more mature yellow, the quince looks something like an apple. But advise your shoppers not to bite into this one raw—otherwise, they're in for a bitter, cottony surprise. Once cooked, however, the quince's flesh turns a pinkish-purple color and becomes soft and sweet.

Quince can be poached in syrup or liqueurs, or used to make fruit-based meat glazes. Culinary hobbyists take advantage of the fruit's high pectin content to make jams and jellies, or bake it, along with other fruit, into pies and tarts.

Precisely Persimmons
The Chinese-American poet Li-Young Lee tells of being chastised by his teacher for not knowing the difference between precision and persimmon. He begs to differ, noting that choosing a persimmon is precision: Eating an under-ripe persimmon is sure to result in a pucker.

The fruits, which are in season from September through December, look something like tomatoes, ranging from orange-red to yellow. They should be plump and evenly colored. The astringent type of persimmon is best when soft, almost like jelly, but the nonastringent varieties can be eaten when crisp, like an apple.

Schueller thinks even nonbelievers will like the taste of cinnamon persimmons. "When it's cut open there's little brown spots—they're sugar pockets—all over them, and they have kind of a cinnamony taste."

Called kaki (or, in Spanish, caqui) throughout most of the world, persimmons are a favorite among naturals consumers, since they are often grown without the use of pesticides and have a high vitamin A content. The persimmon tree, a member of the ebony family, is a tremendous resource for more than fruit, as its wood is very hard and is used to manufacture sewing bobbins and golf clubs. The wood also is a favorite for smoking foods because its density makes it burn slowly, generating a lot of heat and a hickory-type flavor.

Best of all, the fruit can be eaten out of hand. But that doesn't stop creative types from baking it into breads and puddings, crystallizing it into candy, adorning salads with it, or spooning out the soft center and cradling a scoop of ice cream between the two halves.

And if you happen to get a few bad apples ... er, persimmons ... keep in mind that deer love them, too.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 10/p. 28

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