I’d never seen or tasted a Surinam cherry before Rick plucked a handful from a delicate, shrub-like tree and held them out to me. He popped one in his mouth and bobbed his outstretched hand in earnest. I took one.
Tart and sweet, but mostly tart. A little effervescent spice fizzled up into my nose. The flavor was like nothing I’d ever tasted, which left me in distress. How will I be able to describe it to them? I thought. (See, I’m always thinking of you guys.) I tried another, and another. I liked them, but I didn’t know why. I suppose for the same reason I like Sour Patch Kids. It’s a tennis match of taste sensation played in my mouth – tart, sweet, tart, sweet. It awakens the palate with a shimmy-shake.
Rick Martinez is the director of Sweetwater Organic Community Farm in Tampa, a modest but beautiful six-acre farm where shareholders come every Sunday to collect their portion of the week’s harvest. Sweetwater grows mostly vegetables, including many types of greens. But tucked at the back of the property there’s a little grove of fruit trees: carambola (star fruit), avocado, mango and Surinam cherries. We were wading through the hanging branches of the star fruit tree when we came upon the Surinam.
Despite their name, Surinam cherries don’t resemble cherries in anyway, except maybe size. They are firmer and, as I mentioned, not as sweet, although I’ve read that they can become sweeter as they ripen. The ones I tasted were still orange-red, which indicated that they had some ripening yet to do. The sweetest are supposedly dark purplish maroon.
Surinam cherries are delightful looking fruit – like little pumpkins with lustrous ribbed skin. The Surinam cherry tree is evidently a common hedge plant in Florida, but it originated in Suriname, the smallest independent country in South America, which sits north of Brazil. (The only other time I’d heard of Suriname was in high school, when I read Candide. I recall that buffoon spent a minute in Suriname for whatever silly reason.)
I did a little looking around and there are recipes using Surinam cherries – jellies, cakes, sauces, etc. In the final face-off of "Top Chef" (on the Bravo channel), ultimate winner Ilan Hall (a New Yorker, I’d like to note) used the cherries to make a judge-pleasing sorbet. When I watched the episode (as a rerun at 2am, of course) I remember wondering what a Suriname cherry was. Little did I know I would soon find out.
- You can read more about Sweetwater in my upcoming Washington Post travel article on Florida farmers' markets. It should be published soon. I'll let you know when.