TROPICAL FRUITS

Beijing, 11 December 2013

I’ve just come back to China from a business trip abroad. As is my habit on these trips, I picked up whatever English-language newspapers were being proffered at the plane door. On the return leg, I found myself with the International New York Times (until recently the International Herald Tribune). Once we had taken off, I settled into my usual reading routine, which is to start with the cartoons, have a stab at the Sudoku and sometimes the crossword (depending on how easy it is), then meander through the rest of the newspaper, settling on whatever articles catch my eye. In this particular edition, I came across an article entitled “Letting the Nose Lead the Way”, about the durian. The article was a paean to the durian, the author an unashamed fan. So much of a fan that I decided to write this post in protest and to right the balance.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the durian, this is it:

durian on tree

It is a tropical fruit common throughout Southeast Asia and southern China. A huge fruit which can weigh up to three kilogrammes and whose husk is covered with large nasty spikes. Which two facts together lead some to wear safety helmets if they venture into durian orchards when the fruit is ripe and ready to fall. I kid you not:

safety helmets under durian trees

When you split open the husk you find these squishy pods inside

durian inside

Durian inside-2

which smell and taste absolutely … disgusting.

The first – and last – time I ate durian was in Malaysia in the mid-1990s. I was with a Moroccan colleague. It was the first time for both of us in the country. We were with a third colleague, an Italian, who had been many times to Malaysia. We were driving through some village when he suddenly ordered the driver to stop and us to get out. We were confronted by a roadside vendor behind a pile of these large spiky fruits. We absolutely had to try one, our Italian colleague declared, it was rightly called the king of fruits. The vendor split open the husk, and a nauseous smell hit us.  We hesitated, but he urged us on; get beyond the smell, he cried, the taste is sublime. And all my life I will remember the face of my Moroccan colleague as he bit into that yellow guck, a look of pure horror and utter revulsion. A look which was mirrored in my face as I too bit into the guck. This photo, of a poor kid who has just tried durian for the first time in Indonesia, sums up the experience well.

Kids-Feel-Sick-After-Eating-Durian

Never, ever, again.

You don’t have to open the husk to get the smell. It spreads around the unopened fruit like a sickening miasma. So strong is the smell that durians are often prohibited from enclosed public spaces.  I disovered this in Singapore after my trip to Malaysia, where there were prominent signs banning durian from the subway system.

no_durian-singapore

The long list of things you can’t do in Singapore has now become something of a joke, but the ban of durians on the subway is one which I completely and heartily approve of.

If this had been my only experience with tropical fruit in Malaysia, I would have left the country with a permanently bad impression. Luckily, though, my Italian colleague redeemed himself by introducing us to three other tropical fruits (or froo-wits as he called them): the jackfruit, the mangosteen, and the rambutan.

The jackfruit looks uncannily like the durian. The fruit is also large – huge, sometimes – and has a spiky exterior, although nothing like as spiky as the durian

Jacfruit at Nunem

The pods inside are also yellow and squishy

jackfruit inside

jackfruit pulp

But the taste is a universe away from the durian: a delicate sweetness which lingers in the mouth and urges you on to take the next morsel.

As for the mangosteen, ah, what a fruit! From the outside, it looks something like a large plum but with a hard rind.

Mangosteen on tree

When you crack open the rind, you find that it harbours soft, dazzlingly white segments

mangosteen inside-3

which literally taste divine, something surely that was invented by nature only for the gods to eat: juicy, supremely sweet, yet with an acid overtone that holds the sweetness in check, preventing it from becoming cloying.

And finally the rambutan, a wonderfully hairy looking fruit (reminding me always of a certain part of the male anatomy), growing in clusters on the tree

rambutan on tree

When the rind is opened, a glistening small white globe is uncovered

rambutan inside-2

with a taste very much like fresh lychee; not surprising, since the two are relatives. I smuggled a batch of rambutans back to my wife (I’m sure I was not allowed to import them), and they tasted as good at our kitchen table in Italy as they had in the market in Malaysia.

There comes a time of year, in autumn, when street vendors in Beijing begin to sell durian. When that sickening smell wafts over me again, I make a wide detour and occupy my mind’s eye, nose and mouth with the wonders of jackfruit, mangosteen and rambutan.

______________________

Durian on tree: http://bizzarrobazar.files.wordpress.com/2012/03/cd81e7e027f4cae2c94959b42b6797f6.jpg [in http://bizzarrobazar.com/tag/durian/%5D
Safety helmets under the durian tree: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_fVVBfNE7dsI/SBawmCQGfsI/AAAAAAAAAdA/T1oJ-Rm8IfE/s400/109-0970_IMG.JPG [in http://dusundurian2002.blogspot.com/%5D
Durian inside: http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3782/9372567678_1077e89202_b.jpg [in http://www.sgfoodonfoot.com/2013/07/rws-invites-durian-fest-2013.html%5D
Durian inside-2: http://hype.my/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Durian.jpg [in http://hype.my/2013/05/durian-pizza-anyone/%5D
Kid feeling sick after eating durian: http://www.indoboom.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Kids-Feel-Sick-After-Eating-Durian.jpg [in http://www.indoboom.com/2013/videos/americans-taste-durian-for-the-first-time-indonesian-reactions.html%5D
No Durians-Singapore: http://dodontdontdo.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/singapore_several_2011_transtation.png [in http://dodontdontdo.wordpress.com/2011/05/20/no-bombs-no-no-durians/%5D
Jackfruit tree: http://www.parrikar.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/jackfruit-tree-nundem-goa.jpg [in http://www.parrikar.com/blog/2012/01/16/jackfruit/%5D
Jackfruit inside: http://www.envygfx.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/jackfruit-picture-kerala.jpg [in http://www.envygfx.com/yellow-flowers/jackfruit-picture-kerala.html
Jackfruit pulp: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-eJb31wThfh8/TzQyJZbTraI/AAAAAAAABlY/8xRgGyoUPNI/s1600/jackfruit+pulp.jpg [in http://www.skinny-vegan-food.com/2012/02/what-is-jackfruit.html#.UqcyWielrnQ%5D
Mangosteen on tree: http://0.tqn.com/d/treesandshrubs/1/0/K/3/-/-/MangosteenFlickrgoosmurf.jpg [in http://treesandshrubs.about.com/od/fruitsnuts/ig/Tropical-Fruit-Photo-Gallery/Mangosteen.htm%5D
Mangosteen inside: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_B2KRqsfacXY/TPauKjqVJ2I/AAAAAAAAAD8/47vgd8Q51Dg/s1600/Fruit+%25282%2529.jpg [in http://mastryone.blogspot.com/2010/12/mangosteen-juice.html%5D
Rambutan on tree: http://www.panoramicfruit.com/P1000481Copy2cropped.jpg [in http://imagejuicy.com/images/fruits/d/durian/5/%5D
Rambutan inside: http://www.baldorfood.com/media/catalog/product/cache/1/image/9df78eab33525d08d6e5fb8d27136e95/r/a/rambutan.jpg [in http://www.baldorfood.com/rambutan%5D

PLEASE SAVE THE TREES

Beijing, 17 December 2012

I’m a sucker for a fine tree, as any reader of these postings will know. So it was with increasing depression that I read an article recently in Science Daily (www.sciencedaily.com) which said that large old trees – trees that are centuries old – are dying at alarming rates. The die-off seems to be happening in all types of forests worldwide and to be caused by many things: land clearance, changes in agricultural practices and in fire regimes, logging and timber gathering, insect attack, climate change, and I don’t know what else.

I suppose I should recite the critical ecological roles which large old trees play. For instance, they provide nesting or shelter for up to 30 percent of all birds and animals in some ecosystems. They store huge amounts of carbon. They recycle soil nutrients. They create rich patches for other life to thrive in. They influence local flows of water and the local climate. They supply lots of food for many animals with their fruits, their flowers, their leaves, their nectar. In agricultural landscapes, they can be focal points for restoration of vegetation. They help connect the landscape by acting as stepping stones for many animals that disperse seeds and pollen.

So large old trees are very useful. But ultimately they are beautiful.

baobab_tree

C

elm tree

oak tree

plane tree

Angkor-wat-Tree

I’ve said it before, but my life has been punctuated by a number of beautiful large old trees. Let me tell you about one of them. My maternal grandmother had a sequoia, Sequoiadendron giganteum, standing in magnificent splendour in the corner of her garden. There must have been a fad for planting sequoias in the late 19th century in this part of France because a number of older properties in the surroundings had sequoias – you could see them towering over garden walls as you drove by. I loved that sequoia. My cousins and I used to spend all our summers in that tree, or so it seems to me as I gaze back through the golden haze of more than four decades of memories. Our grandmother tried to stop us climbing it by sawing off the lower branches. But we just cut steps into the soft bark and climbed. And climbed. All the way to the top, where we would sit, talk, and look out over the pastures, woods and vineyards that surrounded us as the breeze rustled through the branches and the tree swayed slightly. We were lords of all that we surveyed.

I don’t have a photo of my grandmother’s sequoia, but here is a photo of another sequoia in a French garden somewhere. It gives you a great idea of what awaited us in the far corner of my grandmother’s garden.

sequioa-in-france

That tree seemed so huge to us, but nearly two decades ago, when the children were young, we took our summer holiday in California and visited Sequoia National Park. My God, what truly magnificent trees those were! My sequoia was a laughable midget compared to these giants. But I couldn’t climb these trees.

giant-sequoia-tree-pv

My wife has just old me that she never climbed trees when she was young. And I don’t remember our children every really climbing trees – we have become so conscious of dangers for children in the intervening decades (it is true that my younger brother and cousin fell out of a tree when a branch broke; my cousin cushioned my brother’s fall but fractured his collar bone in the process). But I think my family missed something. There is something magic about being up in a tree. Suddenly you are back to being a four-limbed creature as you have to use your arms as much as your legs. The world concentrates down to just a few branches. And the noise levels change; there is a quietness in a tree which you do not have on the ground, but also you hear noises you don’t hear so much on the ground, like the rustling of leaves. And your lines of sight change; suddenly you are a giant able to see much further around you than you normally can. And if the tree is a fruit tree, ahh … you can sit on a branch, pluck the fruit around you, and munch on them in quiet contentedness.

My memories of trees are nearly all from rural areas, although I do have some memories of beautiful trees from city parks – one of the earlier postings testifies to this. So many of us live in cities now and I’m worried we are getting cut off from trees – and this can only get worse as more and more of us live in cities. Cities and trees do not seem to mix well. As I look around Beijing streets, for instance, I do not see many great trees. The majority of the specimens look malingering. And yet … My wife and I visited Singapore recently. For her, it was the first time. For me, it was the first time in fifteen years. And the city struck me the way it had always struck me: it is so green. Not grass green, although there is certainly a lot of that. No, tree green.

01-rain-tree-06

There’s a huge number of trees in Singapore – and not small trees, either, but big, mature trees. The city always gives me the impression of the planners having carefully inserted the buildings between and around the trees which already grew there. Of course, it’s silly; it was obviously the other way round. I mean, the trees grow along the sides of straight roads … And the older parts of the city, like Little India and Chinatown, show the bare and treeless Singapore of the past, the kind of city we’re used to seeing elsewhere. But still, the impression is of a city inserted into a forest. According to National Parks Singapore there are something like 2 million trees planted in the city-state, which works out to be about one tree for every two and half people. I don’t know of any other city with such a high tree-to-citizen ratio.

So it is possible to live in close harmony with great trees. We must do it, because I think we lose part of our humanity if we don’t live near trees, if we cannot have this view every day of our lives.

01-rain-tree-04

_______________
Baobab tree: http://www.louisianagardenclubs.org/live_oak_society/photos_files/AngelOak.jpg
Copper beech tree: http://www.visualphotos.com/photo/2×4003896/copper_beech_tree_1811714.jpg
Elm tree: http://i.istockimg.com/file_thumbview_approve/1678381/2/stock-photo-1678381-elm-trees.jpg
Oak tree: http://www.louisianagardenclubs.org/live_oak_society/photos_files/AngelOak.jpg
Plane tree: http://mw2.google.com/mw-panoramio/photos/medium/14963960.jpg
Angkor wat tree: http://www.davestravelcorner.com/photos/cambodia/Angkor-Crooked-Tree.jpg
Sequoia in France: http://ts2.cn.mm.bing.net/th?id=H.4582357281933013&pid=1.9
Giant sequoia: http://www.nunukphotos.com/images/giant-sequoia-tree-pv.jpg
National Parks Singapore: http://www.nparks.gov.sg/cms/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=173&Itemid=161