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Recently, I stumbled upon a memory of a stout, sturdy guava tree in the neighbourhood where I grew up. As kids, my friends and I would climb that neighbour’s tree and spend at least an hour up there eating every guava within reach. Thankfully, the owner of the house never seemed to mind having three to four young boys up in his tree every day gorging themselves on the large, round, fragrant fruit.
Since those days I have not seen a guava. In fact, I am seeing fewer of the fruits that I grew up eating; they are quickly disappearing from the local markets and our lives. Many of you may recall the Saturday or Sunday morning ritual of going to the market with your parents and coming home with all sorts of fruits.
Nowadays you have to get to the market very early to snag the meagre offerings before they are all snatched up. The fact that these fruits disappear within an hour suggests that there is considerable demand for this produce. Why then do most major grocery stores burden their shelves primarily with foreign fare? There is always an abundance of waxy apples, sour strawberries and hard-as-concrete pears, peaches and nectarines!
Several years ago, the reverse was actually the case. Apples, pears and grapes were exclusively Christmas imports. Nothing is wrong with making these fruits available, but there is a disturbing imbalance weighed heavily in favour of these North American exports. Additionally, because importers have a tremendous amount of difficulty getting the timing right, these fruits are either picked too early and never mature properly or rot rapidly as soon as you get them home.
I often look at foreign television shows like No Reservations and Bizarre Foods to get a sense of how they explore different countries. This is particularly useful in the production of my own programme The Road Less Travelled. One of the first places these travel and food shows visit is the main market in any country. There they can expose the viewer to all of the exotic produce of the particular country they are profiling.
This is important because food culture is an influential foundation of national identity. It easily makes for one of the more interesting elements of any travel show. Well, I’ve tried that in my own show and looking at heaps and heaps of apples and grapes or pirate DVDs doesn’t make for very gripping television!
Perhaps I was fortunate because my father was from the bush. In my yard, we had a cherry tree, sugarcane, soursop, pineapple, barbadine, passion fruit, sugar apple, ortanique and limes. We would go for months at a time not seeing a single box of store-bought juice. Soft drinks just never made it on to the grocery list. There was always a jug filled with barbadine or passion-fruit juice and my father would enslave my sisters to have them make barbadine and coconut ice cream.
There was never a void when mango went out of season because there was always some other fruit in season at one time or another. Examining the availability of local fruits, you might come away with the impression that there is no market for them. I would challenge any entrepreneur to establish a decent fruit stall skewed in favour of local fruits and I am confident you would have a tremendous amount of difficulty meeting demand.
Therein lies the problem. Any landholdings producing local fruits do so on a very small scale. Indeed, a lot of the fruits you’re lucky enough to get your hands on are produced by humble private citizens who simply sell what the trees on their property produce. Another problem is the quality of the local fruits that you are actually able to find. More often than not, the portugals carried by the groceries are spongy, dry and look like they should be on life support. The grapefruits are as small as oranges and the oranges are as small as limes and the limes, well, you need a vise to get any juice out of them.
We are trying to boost tourism but what are we bringing people here for? How are the hotels supplied with local fruits? Chances are that the pommecythere that you bought recently came from Grenada. Apparently, vendors say those are much sweeter. This, of course, isn’t surprising in a country where our customer service motto is “You should feel lucky to get it at all.”
More than simply supplying the local market, we should be growing and exporting high-quality sapodillas, governor plums, cashews, mangoes, West Indian cherries, balata, caimite and tambran dayzah. We must stop cutting down the fruit trees in our yards to keep the pipers away. Put down some bear traps and let us begin the revitalisation of our fruit culture. Farmers are complaining that they can’t compete against imported produce. Well, we can only eat so much baigan and ochro! This is the sort of agriculture we need, this is the diversification we need.
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