I’ve eaten so much fruit here. I’ve basically consumed an orchard worth of fruit and I’m not complaining at all. It’s still winter here in Taiwan, so my access to fruit has just begun. When I was little, I never really understood the concept of seasons or regional fruits. Growing up in Southern California, I never really needed to know the gestation period of an orange tree or how it was possible to produce strawberries year around. Or even, why bananas couldn’t grow in the states, but we still had them year around.
Here, it’s different. Here, they understand the weather and the fruit that comes with the seasons. There isn’t a farmer
who is creating guavas out of season just to please a consumer from a first world country. Mangos aren’t showing up in the markets during the winter time, and wax apples only exist on roadside stands when there is a chill in the air and families start gearing up for New Year’s celebrations.
I’ve discovered that there is an integral role that fruit plays in Taiwanese culture. Without fruit, there is no aid in digestion after a filling meal. Some generations believe a meal isn’t complete without it, and some even travel to the south to ensure that they get the ripest and freshest of fruits. People buy it in bulk, specially packaged in gift boxes to send to family and friends. Whereas fruit baskets in the states are more of a novelty, here they are truly appreciated.
About a week ago I had the chance to visit southern Taiwan. My cousin graciously drove me and his family the six-hour trek to the southernmost tip of the island, and on the way home, we stopped by a vendor on the side of the road selling wax apples (莲雾). I was intrigued by his farm, and I noticed behind the steel shed that he and his wife sold fruit from, there was a field of mango trees. The owner offered to show me around. He was so proud of the mangos that he was growing. As he was showing me around, he began to tell me the story of his fields.
He planted his first tree 20 years ago. It was a wax apple tree. Then, about five years later, came the mango trees, with many more to follow. With my camera ready, we walked around and the farmer started pointing at various trees; he had a story for each.
“That one was the first one. I took it from a friend’s plot. He let me have a few sprouts to start growing mangos because there was an opportunity for income, but also because my son likes them.”
“This one was planted with eight others. For some reason, there was some tree rot going around that almost killed all of them, this was the only one that survived.”
“Do you smell that? That is the smell of real animal poop. It’s good for the trees, doesn’t have any of those weird chemicals. That’s why my mangos are the best and are already growing. There’s the pile of poop over there, it also makes the mangos smell better. Smell the air, take a big whiff.”
I felt like I was on a tour of the Amazon, and the farmer was my naturalist guide
You can see the pride that he had in his trees and the fruit that came from it. It was an insight into the business that many of us, or at least myself, take for granted. I don’t think about the story of the fruit, the tree it comes from and the care taken into making it. Mango season doesn’t start for another three months, so I didn’t really think about getting the chance to see the fruit, but my guide wanted to make sure that I got photographs of his prized possessions. So with cigarette dangling off his lips and the ashes curling down ready to blow off with the slightest gust of wind, he removed the wrapping around each mango and looked so proud of his accomplishment.
From his off-yellow grin to the wrinkles in his face, you could see how happy he was to share his creation with us. It was something magical to witness. Even more amazing, was when he let my cousins take some of his mangos, still early in the season, home.
He offered to sell us a few of the mangos, but they weren’t quite ripe yet. Again, mango season isn’t until May and there was no way he was going to give us unripe fruit like what we get in the states. He made a point to tell us that and looked straight at me, as if he had a sixth sense about where I came from. So, with the mangos, he gave us explicit directions. “Don’t let it out of the box. I’m wrapping it with some blankets to keep it warm. Once you get to Taipei, because it is so cold, find the warmest place in your house. You have a heater? Stick it there. After 6 days, open the box and then let it breath for a few hours, then stick it back in the box and keep it warm for another day. Then open it up and let it sit out to finish ripening. Don’t let it near any cold or it won’t ever be ready. “
It was clear through his specific directions that he loved his work so much that he didn’t want us to not enjoy his products. We then packed up the mangos and waved goodbye from the car, as he continued to remind us about the directions through the closed window of the car as we drove off.
We followed his direction to the T. We had those mangos wrapped, re-wrapped, and heated. We even added some extra heat just in case. When it came time to finally cut into a mango,something was wrong. It had completely turned black on the inside. The mango hit too much heat and had spoiled on the inside. From what I hear from my cousin’s kid, what she was able to taste (the two bites) were delicious. I guess I’ll just have to wait until May.
But it’s ok. If having to buy fruit from the side of the road will give me the chance to randomly meet a farmer again and hear his story and see the love and pride he has in the work he does, I’ll accept a few spoiled mangos.