Caribbean Fruit Stands are magical…
‘All Fruits Ripe’ in Jamaica means ‘everything’s going well,’ but for this cruising sailor, it’s a quest for fresh and the colorful markets that sell it. Every island has quirky collections of stalls and shops offering veggies, fruits, and pounds of surprise. No two are alike yet each features seasonal inventory until you hear, “It finish.” Patience is paramount in small market shops because weighing and paying for produce, all laced with polite conversation, takes time. Experience has taught me to first scrutinize the market, look for perfectly ripened specimens, a friendly face and an aura of cleanliness. After all, in Antigua’s St. John, signs warn, “NO SPITTING.” I figure they’re there for a reason.
Market vendors have rules, (unwritten, of course,) to figure out and follow. Produce is sold ‘by de heap or de pung’ because that’s how it’s done. Always ask. A heap might be four mangoes, maybe six or five? A pound is weighed on a vintage balance scale; the produce set on a brass receptacle offset by marked lead weights. Sometimes items are married and the seller will enforce, “Ya can’d buy jus de tommahtos. Ya gots ta buy wid de quecumbas.” I learned of this pairing in Nevis after going round and round with a lady. She was right. I couldn’t buy just the tomatoes.
I recently encountered a new, softball sized fruit covered in a tough skin so I enquired, “What’s that?”
“It a mahmmy ahpel,” the not so busy vendor replied.
“A mammy apple?”
“No, a mahmmy ahpel!”
“Oh,” I said. “A mommy apple?”
“NO! A MAHMMY AHPEL!”
I tacked the conversation. “What do you do with it?”
“Ya peel it. Peel de skin wid a knife. Inside it sweet. It got a beeg peet jus like de mongo.”
I bought one, sat it in the galley and poked it daily to determine ripeness. When I cut it, the flesh was rotten and I knew- should have asked more questions.
On a trip to Carriacou’s Marketing Board I poured the contents of my basket on the counter and learned- the limes I chose were mandarins, my oranges were lemons and the ugli fruit was a cousin to a grapefruit. Citrus can be confusing, but bananas are worse. Some are yellow, others green and they all resemble plantain. Fat ones, called bluggoe, are easily confused with figs and which ones you cook depends on who you ask.
Questions won’t always net helpful answers. An island guide, informing guests of local trees and plants, showed them a breadfruit. A tourist asked how to spell it and was informed, “We doan spell breadfruit. We duz eat it.”
After hearing about the healing properties of Noni juice, I asked a vendor where I might find some. She slipped from the rear of her box, laced her arm through mine and trotted me across the neighbors land. “Dere, in dat tree,” she pointed. “I git de mon.”
She did and he spent most of an hour picking the glassine fruit from high in the tree. They resemble giant, squatty caterpillars so I knew I’d need instructions. “You gots to get a beeg glass. You feel it wid de noni, all de way up. Cloze de glass and wait. De juse come.” I bought a jumbo jar, crammed it full and put the lid on tight. I watched for weeks as the Noni rotted, oozing liquid. Curiosity prompted me to open the jar one day but when a powerful stink bomb escaped, I didn’t do that again. The final product was a measly cup of juice but I’m convinced it cured what ailed me.
Fruit cocktail stars are always a score- mangos and melons, papaya and pineapple, but keep shopping. With luck, you might find a tropical treat you haven’t yet met. Sapodillos, rough looking little balls with cinnamon colored flesh and a spicy flavor are scrumptious. Kick start your day with passion fruit, cut in half and spooned straight in. Starfruit and Star Apple deliver a puckered punch. And soursop, once you’ve laboriously separated the goo from the skin, can be eaten or blended for juice. Every fruit has it’s season and summer’s the time for guineps. Gumball sized, the taut skin is snapped open, the fruit slides out and your tongue has a holiday working the flesh loose from the seed.
My most recent discovery was island grown pomegranate and when a market lady handed me some Wax Apples, it was clear where they got their name. I’m still on the hunt for Jackfruit and I should give guava a second chance. Mamey Apple deserves a do-over but believe me, once was enough for Stinking Toe. I’m always on the hunt and if life is just a bowl of cherries, I’ll find the island they’re on.