“Hi, my name is Larry. I’m a plumber from Encinitas, and I have about 35 fruit trees crammed into a small space.”
Cathy from Cardiff says, “I just bought a house. In the yard there’s a tree with ‘strange fruits.’”
Del Hotal shoots back, “They would be right at home with the rest of us strange fruit here.”
What follows is a rather technical (to the layman, at least) presentation on grafting, cloning, pollination, and cultivars, given by a dedicated cadre of hard-core aficionados. An audience member asks, “Did you say hand-pollinating?” The veteran seated next to me whispers earnestly, “Very important.” Right on cue, a hand-pollination video with cheesy music starts. The video host demonstrates the process, showing how to identify male flowers, collect pollen, and place it on the stigma. “Look for the powdery stuff, use it the same hour, and go in only once. If you go in and out multiple times, you’ll get a fruit with a lot of seeds.”
The argot is leavened a bit by the reminiscences of Nino Cupaiuolo, former president of the California Cherimoya Association. Cupaiuolo, a trim, dapper man in his 70s, seems the archetypal gentleman farmer. “I tasted a cherimoya one time. I saw it in the market; I had no idea what it was. I bought it, I liked it, I planted it. And that was the beginning of my love relationship with cherimoyas. That seed — and this is the luck of the beginner — turned out to be one of the varieties that you’ll taste tonight, the ‘fortuna’. Once I found out I had a good thing, a good tree, I named it ‘fortuna’. Most people that come up with new varieties that they like, they name them after their wives. My wife is not named Fortuna.”
Underscoring the capricious nature of the fruit known to many as the ‘custard apple’, Cupaiuolo cautions, “Cherimoyas are like shooting at a moving target: what they do one year will not happen the next year — you have to be prepared for surprises. Everything you’ve heard so far tonight is true and correct, but we don’t know if it will be true and correct next year.”
Strongest draw of the night is the tasting, and Del Hotal cautions us not to rush the tables. A dozen types of cherimoyas have been cut up and placed on paper plates, next to cups into which samplers are encouraged to save the seeds. My first cherimoya is the ‘fornilla #3’, spritely with a citrus tang, then the ‘Whaley’, sweet with yeasty/winey undertones. The ‘Pierce’ displays the classic bubblegum flavor, as does the less intense ‘ox heart’. ‘The Booth’, on the other hand, gives off a sulfurous note, while the atemoya (a hybrid of a cherimoya and a sugar apple) is rubbery and bitter — altogether too funky for my tastes. More palatable are the pear-like flavors of the ‘Needham’ and the nice sweet-tart balance of the ‘fortuna’, which is redolent of mango.
Back on the tour, our next stop, also in Rancho Peñasquitos, is at Leo Manuel’s house. Manuel, mainly a mango maven, tends to 30–40 varieties of mango, which are found primarily in India, Thailand, and Central America. Manuel, a self-effacing man who looks to be about 70, greets us in his front yard. He points to a tree and says, “This one performs poorly in San Diego, but it does well in Florida. Some are more cold tolerant than others.” He shows us another specimen, this from the Todos Santos region of Mexico; five years old, it was started, like all of his mango plantings, from seed from store-bought mangos or from fellow mango-ites. In full bloom, the flowers aren’t much to look at, but from late summer until around December, it will bear 1 ½ lb. fruits. Next to it is a baby mango, Indian variety.
Neitzel — whose prowess in rare-fruit cultivation (and knowledge of its origins) has led Kotnik to dub him El Capitán — chimes in with a tidbit about Manuel’s leading cultivar, the ‘Keitt’. “It’s named after some dude, who, for some reason, didn’t know how to spell his own name.” He goes on. “There’s a guy named Captain Buckalew who, last century, did a lot of work experimenting about a mile inland of Quail Gardens; he was trying to find the mango that would perform in that coastal area. He came to the conclusion that it’s best to get early-ripening cultivars that can really capitalize on the summer months for their growth — cranking out the starches, cranking out the fruit — so he developed a [faster mango], the ‘early gold’.”
The warm microclimate of his back yard is where Manuel’s mangos reach their hefty, fragrant glory. I accidentally dislodge a fruit from a tree no taller than my shoulders. Purplish with a pastel tinge, it’s egg-shaped with splashes of yellow; it weighs a couple of pounds. Manuel says he doesn’t know how many trees he has — maybe 40 — with over two dozen varieties. In contrast to some rare-fruit growers, he takes an easygoing, experiential approach. No worries, he says. The mango isn’t finicky, and copes quite well with a variety of soils, including poorly drained clay soils. He notes, “They can get big, but not in San Diego’s climate. I try to keep them small, so I can pick the fruit.”
Manuel offers me a sample of the ‘Leo #4’, which looks just like the typical Asian variety at the supermarket, with variegated green and red. It has the classic fragrance on the outside, plus sticky sap. Seems like a full-on tropical mango right here in San Diego. Tipping the scale at about three pounds, its flesh is yellow-orange, slightly crunchy, and intensely sweet. If you told me it was from Thailand or India, I’d believe it. I also taste a ‘Keitt’, which is similar in color but very firm, as if unripe. Turns out it’s superb. Not fibrous at all, it slices easily with a knife. The flavor is mild, not too acidic; the flesh is a comely yellow-gold.