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Passion fruits

With their children up North visiting relatives, Matthew and Jenny Mitchell could have been doing any number of empty nest things on this steamy Saturday morning.

Sleeping in, for one. Reading a book uninterrupted, for another.

Instead, they were at the Pine Island Tropical Fruit Market loading up on mangoes.

"A friend called to ask me to do something this morning but I said it'll have to wait until I get my Julies," Matthew, 42, a mechanical engineer who lives with his family in Cape Coral, says. "You've got to get here early for the Julies."

The Julie he has put everything on hold for is a variety of mango grown abundantly in the Mitchells' native Trinidad. By month's end, the Julie season will be over and Matthew wants to savor as much spicy orange fruit as he can.

Matthew eats the Julies out of hand, while Jenny, 38, uses mangoes to make a nuclear relish of mango chunks, lots of hot sauce, garlic and salt and pepper.

"I don't use Julies, though," she says. "He won't let me."

The Mitchells are among the many regulars who come to Vivian Murray's and Thida Allison's fruit stand each weekend for a little comfort food.

We're talking about the sort of comfort food that takes people back to their youth in tropical countries. When you come from the Caribbean, Latin America or Asia, a taste of mama's cooking likely includes jackfruit, mamey sapote, sopadilla, lychee nuts, longans and the star of this fruit stand: the mango.

Indians come in search of Mallika mangoes, native to India, the birthplace of the fruit. The phimsen mun draws sighs from Thai customers. Two people speaking Vietnamese gather armfuls of fruit and the rhythmic lilt of a Jamaican accent is heard from a man circling the Julies, which he also knows as St. Julians.

The tropical United Nations gathering at the fruit stand is an anomaly on mostly white, rural Pine Island, which sits between the mainland and the barrier islands of Captiva and Cayo Costa.

Between them, Allison, 55, and Murray, 63, have about 70 acres of tropical fruit trees on Pine Island. Allison and her husband, Mike, grow lychees and longans, and Murray and husband, Bob, a former air-traffic controller, grow most of the mangoes.

The Murrays also operate Treehouse Nursery down the road, which sells mango trees wholesale. They grow about 75 of the 2,500 mango varieties. Treehouse has a good supply of trees but not many are sold retail unless a buyer promises to take care of the young tree. Vivian Murray is that in love with her mango trees.

The bulk of the Allison lychee and longan crop is shipped to wholesalers in Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York. Lychees and longans are indigenous to China and are eaten fresh or dried.

At the end of May, the women open the fruit stand. Until about Labor Day, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday through Sunday tropical fruit lovers find the dusty road and welcoming shade of the tents. One friend tells another friend who tells another about the sweet spot in the lush fruit groves and before long, the fruit picked daily is sold. Most mangoes cost about $1. A mammoth, 16-pound jackfruit, whose smelly flesh belies its oddly pleasant taste, sells for more than $55. The lychees are about $5 a pound.

After shopping, many customers buy one of Allison's delicious, ice-cold smoothies. She blends the milky white meat of lychees with pineapple chunks and coconut milk in one fabulous concoction. Mamey sapote, which is the color of sweet potato and tastes similar, is lightened with coconut milk and a ripe mango in another.

The mango crop throughout the state was hurt this year by drought. Yields are down. That hasn't meant much to the commercial market because there are fewer than 2,000 acres of mango groves in the state, most in Miami-Dade County. Compare that with more than 800,000 acres of citrus fruit grown in Florida.

About a third of South Florida's mango groves were decimated by Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and not replanted. Even before Andrew, most mangoes sold in grocery stores around the nation were imported from South America and Mexico. Today, imports account for nearly more than 95 percent of the market.

Interestingly, the mangoes we are most accustomed to, the Haden and Tommy Atkins, were developed by growers in South Florida and are now grown out of the country. These varieties are more fibrous than some others and hold up well in shipping.

A mango devotee, though, would eat a Haden or a Tommy Atkins only as a last resort. Especially in South Florida, probably the only place on Earth where someone might ask, "What's your favorite mango?"

Flavor and texture is the major difference between the common and less mainstream mangoes. The commercial mangoes have lots of fiber and more acidity, some even say a turpentine taste. Mallikas and Nam Doc Mais, for instance, both highly coveted by aficionados, have no fiber and their smooth flavor is described variously as citrus-tinged, zingy and musky. Unfortunately, the best-tasting mangoes don't ship well. They must be eaten within a few days of picking.

Murray, who moved to Pine Island in 1972 to sell real estate and was a mango farmer before the decade was over, loves the creamy, orangey taste of a Glenn mango and the pineapple overtones of Bailey's Marvel.

"Actually, my favorite mango is the one I'm eating now," she says.

Murray's farming advice is well-regarded by professional and amateur growers, and she and Allison have traveled around the world studying tropical fruit. Murray shipped several varieties of mangoes to Miami's Fairchild Tropical Garden for its annual mango festival earlier this month.

The Allisons found their way to the island in a more circuitous way. They met and married in Thailand, where Mike Allison worked for General Electric, and moved from there to his home state, Iowa.

"I grew Rose of Sharon because that was the closest thing I could find (in Iowa) to a hibiscus," Thida Allison says.

On a vacation to Miami, she saw a carambola, or star fruit tree, and they said goodbye to the plains and hello to tropical South Florida. By then, Mike Allison was working as a nurse. After 10 years in Miami, they moved to Pine Island to plant lychee trees.

"That's why I understand how people feel when they come here and see fruit they ate in their country," she says. "You feel for them because you've been there."

Immigrants aren't the only folks who frequent the stand. It's a popular spot for islanders, people from nearby Fort Myers and the occasional busload of fruit enthusiasts, such as the Sarasota Fruit and Nut Society. Then there are the misguided souls looking for fresh tomatoes and watermelons.

Those they can find just about anywhere, Murray says. At the Pine Island Tropical Fruit Market, it's the unexpected that's expected.

Mango Bread

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

{ teaspoon salt

1{ cups sugar

4 eggs

\ cup macadamia nuts, chopped

\ cup almonds, chopped

} cup vegetable oil

2 cups ripe mango, cut into small cubes

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9- by 5-inch loaf pan.

In a large electric mixing bowl, blend flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt at medium speed for a minute. Add sugar, eggs, macadamia nuts, almonds and oil. Gently fold in mango.

Pour ingredients into loaf pan. Bake for 45 minutes or until knife or toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Makes one loaf.


Mango Yogurt Mousse

1 envelope (1 tablespoon) unflavored gelatin

2 cups fresh mango puree (about 2 peeled and pitted mangoes)

Mango slices for garnish

cup sugar

{ teaspoon vanilla

1 cup plain yogurt

1 cup well-chilled heavy cream

In a small saucepan, sprinkle the gelatin over \ cup cold water, let it soften for 1 minute, and heat the mixture over low heat, stirring, until the gelatin is dissolved. In a blender, blend together the mango puree, sugar and vanilla, then add the gelatin mixture and blend well.

Transfer mixture to a bowl and stir in the yogurt. In a chilled bowl, beat the cream until it holds stiff peaks. Fold it into the mango mixture gently but thoroughly, and divide the mousse among four dessert glasses. Chill the mousse for at least 4 hours or overnight. Garnish the mousse with mango slices.

Serves four.

Source: Gourmet magazine, May 1991

Watermelon and Mango with Lime

4 pounds watermelon (preferably seedless), rind and any seeds discarded and fruit cut into 1-inch chunks

2 large mangoes, peeled, pitted, and cut into 1-inch chunks

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice, or to taste

1 teaspoon finely grated fresh

lime zest

{ teaspoon sugar, or to taste

Toss together all ingredients and chill, covered, stirring occasionally, 20 minutes. Serves six.

Source: Gourmet magazine, August 2001

Mango Tarte Tatin

1 cups flour

2 tablespoons sugar

\ teaspoon salt

1 stick plus 2 tablespoons butter cut in chunks

1 egg

2 tablespoons ice water

cup sugar

2 tablespoons water

3 tablespoons butter

7 mangoes cut in }-inch wedges

Combine flour, sugar and salt in food processor. Add butter and process until mixtures resembles coarse meal. Whisk egg and water in a small bowl. Mix in enough of egg mixture to bind dough. Gather dough into a ball, wrap in plastic and let stand 1 hour. Preheat oven to 450 degrees and position rack in center.

Cook -cup sugar with 2 tablespoons water over medium heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Increase heat and boil without stirring until syrup turns deep golden brown. Whisk in butter. Immediately pour into 9-inch glass pie dish. Arrange mango evenly in dish. Roll dough out on lightly floured surface. Place over fruit. Trim edges and press to dish to seal. Bake until golden brown, about 40 minutes. Place heat-proof plate over pie dish. Using oven mitts, quickly invert tart onto plate. Serve warm with whipped cream.


If you go

The Pine Island Tropical Fruit Market in Bokeelia is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday through Sunday. It opens in late May and closes when the mango season ends, about Labor Day. For more information, call owners Thida Allison, (941) 283-5327 or Vivian Murray, (941) 283-3688.

To get to to the market from the Tampa Bay area (about 90 miles from the Sunshine Skyway), take I-75 south toward Punta Gorda to Exit 161 at Jones Loop Road. Follow it west 2 miles to Burnt Store Road, also called State Road 765. Drive south on Burnt Store Road for 20 miles. It dead-ends at Pine Island Road; go west (right).

Follow Pine Island Road to a four-way stop at Stringfellow Road. Go north (right) for 2{ miles and the market will be on the right. Watch for signs.

Matthew and Jenny Mitchell, natives of Trinidad, smell Julie mangoes at the Pine Island Tropical Fruit Market. "I just love a Julie," Matthew says. "It has such an incredible flavor."

An assortment of tropical fruit for sale at the Pine Island Tropical Fruit Market. From bottom, clockwise: lychee nuts, nam wah bananas, jack fruit, golden lippens, mango and Zill mango.

Vivian Murray, co-owner of the Pine Island Tropical Fruit Market, offers a mango and some advice for a customer. "My favorite mango is the one I'm eating," Murray says.