The first time I saw a dragon fruit, I could hardly believe my eyes. Hanging from a prickly cactus vine, this ornamental egg-shaped fruit with a pinkish skin looked like something from another planet. When cut in half, its subtle perfume and brilliant red flesh, flecked with tiny black sesame seeds were a revelation. I’d never seen or tasted anything quite like it.
As with many exotic fruits, its flavour is best appreciated when just picked. While some (such as lychees, mangosteens and rambutans, all with sturdy skins) have become more readily available, they’re really at their peak when tasted close to home, as most do not travel well. One example is the exquisite white sapote, a sweet white-fleshed fruit with a thin green skin. When ripe, the flesh is soft and luscious and tastes like fine vanilla custard.
Most originated either in South America or South East Asia but are now grown in similar tropical regions in northern Australia.
On a recent trip to Tropical North Queensland, I visited a number of enterprising eateries open to the public where you can taste these fruits. In this region are numerous micro-climates, each with different rainfall, soil and geographical conditions which provide the essential factors required for growing and producing a year-long supply of tropical fruits. In fact, more varieties of exotic and tropical fruit now grow in TNQ than almost anywhere else in the world and locals refer to the region as the “exotic fruit bowl of the world”.
At the Cape Trib Exotic Fruit Farm, deep in the heart of the Daintree rainforest, ten different fruits (including solo papaya, black sapote, sapodilla and rollinia) were available for tasting on the day we visited. Owners Alison and Digby Gotts grow much of the fruit themselves and part of the visit involves a tour of their eco-certified permaculture orchard. The property borders the world heritage rainforest and if you’re staying in one of their delightful cottages, you can sit out on the verandah and feast on tropical fruit for breakfast, and – if you’re lucky – spot a Cassowary wandering by near the creek.
“The equatorial climate at Cape Tribulation means we can grow rare and exotic tropical fruit from the Amazon, South East Asia and the Caribbean,” says Alison. “We have more than 150 species of exotic tropical fruit collected from around the world, and our orchard now has more than 2000 fruit trees.”
It takes a good hour from Cape Tribulation through dense rainforest and winding roads to the car ferry over the Daintree River. Along the way, we passed a number of roadside stalls selling local produce, and numerous signs warning us to watch out for Cassowaries. Once over the wide muddy Daintree, we took a slight detour north to the Daintree Tea House Restaurant for tea and scones before heading south to Mossman.
Signs to the Karnak Playhouse and Rainforest Sanctuary, Diane Cilento’s acclaimed playhouse, led us up the majestic Whyanbeel Valley through fields of sugar cane and sparkling creeks. Built in 1992, the stunning open-air theatre hosts world-class productions of opera (next year it will stage ‘Madame Butterfly’), dance and cabaret. Judy Garland’s daughter, Lorna Luft, was a recent act, performing “Songs My Mother Taught Me.” Cilento grows a wide range of tropical fruits on her property, including gigantic black sapote trees.
“I love them, though a lot of people go ‘yuck’,” she says. “They’re also called chocolate pudding fruit and we make cakes and drinks with them for Karnak cafe.”
Cilento moved to the valley in 1975 and started planting a range of exotic tropical trees in 1977, the fruit of which is used in various dishes at the cafe.
“But unless someone like Oprah Winfrey talks about these fruits, people won’t even try them,” she adds. “We live in a Wow/Yuck world.”
Just down the road from Karnak is the High Falls Tropical Restaurant. Over 80 different varieties of fruits trees are grown here and you can tour the orchard and taste their yummy tropical fruit sorbets made with soursop, jakfruit and sour apple, though bookings are essential.
We were in a hurry to get to Port Douglas, but made time to drop into the Shannonvale Winery where up to 12 tropical fruit wines are available for tasting. I rather liked the medium sweet Mango Wine, Black Sapote Port and Orange Port, though it was ‘Yuck’ to some of the others.
I’d aimed to finish the tropical fruit trail with a ‘Flames of the Forest’ dinner, held in the Daintree by candlelight, but the chef was ill. Fortunately, there was a table available at Nautilus. Set on a hill under a canopy of palm trees above the main street of Port Douglas, this has to be one of the most stunning restaurant settings in the country. The food’s pretty stunning too – and the soursop daiquiris (available when the fruit is in season) are to die for.