When I heard about Steven and the rare and exotic fruits he grows, I just had to meet him. But there was one problem: He was spending the next month fruit-hunting in Asia. So I did what any stranger determined to meet a rare and exotic fruit grower would do. I tracked him down on his rare fruit Facebook page.
To get his attention, I “liked” many (OK, maybe all) of the pictures he posted during his trip. Know I have no shame when it comes to learning about food.
There was a photo of a banana passion fruit. The selfie of him eating a marang, which is related to the jackfruit. My favorite was the video of him cutting open a large, thorny durian. (I understand it has a very strong odor.)
After my fifth “like,” he took notice.
We arranged to meet at his family’s farm in Bakersfield, California. Murray Family Farms grows more than 320 acres of cherries, citrus, stone fruit, berries and other fruits. It’s also a U-Pick destination with a cafe and farm store.
I pull up to the farm at the same time as a bus of Chinese tourists. It’s Chinese New Year and Steven greets everyone in Mandarin. He can speak five languages fluently. Who is this guy?
Steven and I shake hands, exchange hellos, and then head off to his personal greenhouse, where he’s growing about 2,000 varieties of fruits — the largest private collection in California.
Steven is a walking encyclopedia of fruit facts, and I’m desperately trying to keep up.
He starts talking about how different varieties of fruits come in and out of consumer favor. Apparently, the medlar was extremely popular in the Dark Ages. It was eaten in a semi-rotten, or bletted, state. Shakespeare referenced the fruit in some of his plays, including “Romeo and Juliet.” I wasn’t expecting a lesson in literature, but I’m all ears at this point.
We arrive at a nondescript structure. Nothing fancy on the outside. The greenhouse is more than 3,000 square feet, roughly the size of a roomy four-bedroom house. He walks up to the door and opens it slowly.
I take two steps in and pause.
I’m immediately surrounded by trees and vines engulfing virtually every inch of the space. It’s a Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory moment, and I have the golden ticket!
Steven introduces me to tamarillos, native to South America. Pawpaws, which are the largest fruit in North America. And the tropical apricot of Florida, a cross of wild fruit from Africa and India.
I stand in the middle of his greenhouse amazed by my surroundings. The realization that I know only a small fraction of the world’s fruit has me yearning to learn more.