story by Dennis Hollier
photo by Ken Love
Grumichama. Mysore raspberry. Rangpur lime. Although the names evoke distant lands, dozens of exotic fruits like these grow here in Hawai‘i. And yet, few of us have tasted the caramel custard flesh of the cherimoya or the faintly resinous, Concord-grape flavor of the Surinam cherry. These lesser-known fruits remain oddities, consigned to backyards and side lots and eaten mostly by the people who grow them. Some are even considered weeds. But the 12 Trees Project, an experimental orchard at the Kona Pacific Agricultural Cooperative, might change all that.
The brainchild of Big Island farmer Ken Love, 12 Trees is an attempt to turn these rare and exotic fruits into cash crops for Hawai‘i’s fruit farmers. It’s an ambitious project, one that will require figuring out how to grow, package and sell fruit most Hawai‘i residents have never heard of. Funded by the sustainable agriculture program of the US Department of Agriculture, 12 Trees is a collaboration of Big Island farmers, chefs and the University of Hawai‘i’s Center for Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. If it’s successful, one day we’ll be able to find some of these rare fruits on the supermarket shelves.
The 12 Trees Project began by identifying fruit trees with real economic potential. Love asked fifty-four Big Island chefs to choose twelve tropical fruits that they wished were more available. They selected fruits that would complement their own menus—to braise into sauces, stew into chutneys or purée into sorbets—and their culinary choices still form the core of the project. The orchard is affiliated with West Hawai‘i Community College’s culinary school. Instructors and student chefs routinely incorporate 12 Trees fruits into their menus, yielding recipes like a piquant Thai red curry infused with Surinam cherry paste and sabayon of cherimoya.
For now, the fruits of the 12 Trees Project remain hard to find. Love sells the orchard’s produce to fund the culinary school, so you can sometimes get it at Kona groceries and farmer’s markets. For the most part, though, these fruits might as well still be in those distant lands. The orchard, however—near the end of not-so-distant Napo‘opo‘o Road—is open to the public; stroll its cinder paths—amid fig and soursop and jaboticaba—and the world is at your fingertips. HH