Gordon: I was hanging some laundry on the line at our hotel this morning when I noticed an orange tree with abundant green fruit. Looking around, I realized that the clothesline is set in a tropical fruit garden. In addition to the oranges, there are several small banana trees, a number of mature guava trees (which are currently in season), a small pomegranate shrub, as well an orasão tree and a number of Swiss cheese plants.
Based on geography, it is perhaps surprising that tropical and subtropical fruits are found in the Azores. Faial Island is at the same latitude as San Francisco, California, an area not known for its bananas, but the Azores have the advantage of being surrounded by a warmer sea. Bananas, pineapples and citrus fruits are grown on a commercial scale, and a variety of other fruits can be found in personal gardens.
We have had the opportunity to try a couple of new fruits on this trip. The first of these is orisão, often called strawberry guava in English. This fruit is about as big as big as the end of a man’s thumb, and is produced in clusters on a small tree. Our host on Graciosa first offered us some from her garden, and now I notice, and eat them, regularly. They are consumed whole, though some people find their crunchy seeds off-putting. They have a slightly astringent but pleasant taste.
An even stranger fruit is found on the Swiss cheese plant. The scientific name of the plant is Monstera Deliciosa. It’s name in Portuguese and Spanish translates as “Adam’s rib”, a reference to the shape of the leaves, which have voids between the ribs. The first time I noticed one of these plants I assumed it was a Split Leaf Philodendron. (Wikipedia cautions against making this error and eating the Philodendron fruit, which is poisonous.) The fruit of the Swiss cheese plant, which is currently in season, is a beefy green spike not dissimilar to the flower on a skunk cabbage. It has two layers of hexagonal cells, the inner one of which is edible. The stalk ripens sequentially, starting from the top. As it ripens, the outer cells fall away, and the inner cells soften. This is a process that cannot be rushed: the outer cells and the unripe inner cells both contain calcium oxalate, which can form crystals in your mouth. Both Ruth and Vicki ate unripe fruit and suffered the persistent feeling of having eaten fibreglass. Allowed to properly ripen , the fruit is soft and quite sweet, with a fragrant taste suggestive of mango and pineapple. It is very good, but the ripening process only permits a teaspoon or two to be eaten each day. It’s probably not something you are ever going to see at your local Save On Foods.
It is one of the pleasures of travel to discover new foods, and the Azores have not disappointed on this outing.