Hola! Cómo estás? I’ve been away on an island respite. Not the one usually reserved for my dreams, but an actual island, surrouned by idyllic blue waters, wave-less and warm, where the song of the coqui frog
lulls you to sleep each night (or drives you entirely crazy, depending on how you want to look at it). I would say I am glad to be back but that seems a little bit like lying, since I’d rather nothing more than to be lounging on the beach, drink in hand, waves at my feet or even to be mud-caked and soggy, alternately schleping across slippery crags and soaring above the palms like a red-tailed hawk atop the Toro Negro
While I reacclimate myself to the real world, restock my baron refrigerator, and prepare to utilize that thing, you know, the stovetop, I thought I’d share some of the exotic bliss I happened upon in Puerto Rico. For starters I’d love to tell you about the seven new-to-me fruits I tasted in the rainforest of that lush green island. That’s right. SEVEN. Oh, paradise.
Let’s start with something I know you’ve all heard of, the passionfruit. Sure I’ve had passionfruit before, in the humdrum form of water ice or popsicles, sometimes lingering in a fancy cocktail or some sort of dessert plate puddle. But I’ve never seen one plucked straight from the tree and cracked open with bare hands, a baseball-sized cocoon giving way to vibrant sunset-hued pulp and glossy seeds so fantastically tart that my cheeks pucker at the memory. It was truly one of the most amazing flavor experiences of my life. If only I could have stuffed my backpack full of them and snuck them past the USDA inspection point at the airport…
I’m getting ahead of myself. I should have started by telling you this all occurred during a ten hour rainforest adventure, a muddy, tiring, exhilirating trek that included jumping, stiff as a board, into a 12-foot water hole, scaling a waterfall, scrambling on all fours over slippery river rocks, and finally, zip-lining our way back to base camp. That being said, upon entrance into the rainforest, our expert guides pointed out a long brown pod, not unlike tamarind
, containing several large seeds within. I didn’t catch the spanish name for it, nor did I get a photo of the seemingly inedible pod as we waded knee-deep in cold waters with my camera tucked away in a dry bag. After some rather rudimentary Google searches (brown pod fruit, Puerto Rican edible pod seeds), I’ve decided that what I willingly palated was locust fruit. The marble-sized seeds are covered in a dry cottony substance, its fruit, which when placed in your mouth seems to melt like cotton candy, morphing into a pleasantly soft consistency with the flavor of vanilla icing.
Next up, poisonous berries! This one kind of baffles my mind in hindsight. As our group hiked up the only trail exposed to the sun and therefore not covered in mud (yay!), our guide pointed out a bush studded with tiny black berries and told us we were welcome to try them. As I nibbled on a few, he explained that there were two almost identical berry bushes in the rainforest: one safe to eat and one terribly poisonous. The only way to tell the two apart is by some small variation in the leaves of the plant. The gravity of that statement did not hit me then, nor at the moment when he laughed at my berry-stained teeth, the equivalent of being caught red-handed, I suppose. No it was much later, back at the hotel, musing over all the new things I had tried that day. What if he screwed up and pointed out the poisonous plant, instead??? Needless to say, I’m not terribly upset that I don’t remember the name of that berry.
While we’re on the topic, I also consumed a “hairy berry” which does not sound very appetizing, I know. Our guide, Raymond, was so excited and insistent, however, that I almost thought he would hand feed it to me if I did not pop it into my mouth on my own. The color and size of a large blueberry, and indeed covered with a sort of wispy hair (think raspberries), it was faintly sweet but had more savory overtones. When I told him this, he asked me to explain the meaning of “savory”. Hmmm. After considerable thought and anticipatory regret for fear of sounding like a caveman, I tentatively answered “not sweet.” How profound.
More than halfway into our excursion, and hours away from a good solid meal, one of the guides ran ahead of the group. When we caught up to him, he was beaming above a pile of elongated apples, urging us to eat. He had scaled the massive tree before us to shake down these funny little rose apples, yielding like pears to our bite, leaving flavors of apple and rosewater on our tongues. They were refreshing and sweet and flowery–how wonderfully weird–a welcome interruption to our growing appetites.
Finally, after a long day of hiking and swimming, we were rewarded with a hearty traditional Puerto Rican meal: rice and beans, yucca, chicken, pork, and breadfruit with bananas, ripe from the tree, for dessert. Simple and soulful, the meal was well-seasoned and delicious. My personal favorite was the starchy breadfruit, cut into shingles, fried, and salted, much like tostones
, and as irresistable as potato chips. I think we all had seconds and I may
have swiped a few from the boyfriend’s pile. We cleaned our plates, stored the equipment, and climbed back into the van, well fed and clad in warm, dry clothes for the first time all day.
Winding our way back down from the mountain, we made a pit stop for one last specialty. We bought a huge cluster of quanapes from a man on the side of the road. A pile bigger than my head for a mere four dollars. These spanish grapes resemble tiny key limes, with dimpled leathery skin you penetrate with your teeth to peel off. Inside, you’ll find sweet and fleshy fruit the palest shade of pink which you pop in your mouth and chew off the pit. They were addictive for the texture alone, if not for the tart green grape flavor.
And so I left the rainforest, exhausted and happy, with dreams of going back again.