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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Not A Gargantuan Grapefruit

We're taking a slight departure from cheese here to bring you an article about one of the finest citrus fruits known to man: The Pummelo.

I wrote this article about a year ago, and here we are in Pummelo season again. In honor of it, and of Chinese New Year, I present to you:

Not A Gargantuan Grapefruit, But A Pummelo

If you are lucky enough to have a Chinatown in your city, or at least a decent Asian grocer, you may have come across a behemoth in the produce aisle. Lurking amongst the demure oranges and tiny clementines are what looks to be props from some lost 1950s B-movie whose plot involved an evil scheme to expose grapefruits to radiation so they would grow to thrice their normal size and crush major cities.

Fear not. It’s just a pummelo.

To the botanical world, it’s known as Citrus maxima, an apt moniker, because it’s the largest citrus fruit known to man. Not all pummelos are huge; some are merely the size of a large grapefruit. But for me, the most fun is had in buying the biggest one I can find – usually 5-6” wide. There’s something satisfying about carrying home a fruit that will scare people on the subway.

I think it’s far sweeter, and has less of an acidic edge, than grapefruit. It’s also unrepentantly juicy. I am not a fan of winter, but with the coming of late-autumn, I know pummelos are on the way. They are one of my favorite fruits.

Most of the pummelos (also known as pomelos, pommelos, or Chinese grapefruit) we find in the Northern Hemisphere are grown in Florida. My Father, a life-long citrus broker, tells me some pummelos are grown in California, but they are quite bitter. Because pummelos are related to grapefruit – they are the latter’s main ancestor – the best of both fruits can be found at the same time: November until early spring.

Although gourmet supermarkets occasionally sell pummelos, I find they are usually overpriced and under-sized. This fruit is popular amongst Southeast Asian people, as China, Thailand, Malaysia, and surrounding areas are its original source. Thus, trust those who know the fruit best: buy them in an Asian-run shop. If you have none in your area, and your local high-end food store is selling them, go for it, but Caveat Emptor!

Here are some shopping tips, regardless of where you buy your pummelos:

Size doesn’t always matter. However, nearly every time I’ve purchased a pummelo, they were sold “by the each” rather than per pound, so take that into consideration. Other than making sure you are buying Florida fruits, in season, the other two crucial characteristics to note are heft and aroma. Take the pummelo in your hands. (You may want to shop with a muscular friend if you are not very robust.) Does the pummelo feel heavy for its size? Like all other citrus fruits, this is a good indicator of its juiciness. Once it’s passed that test, keep it in your hands. I know it’s heavy, but bear with me here. Bring it to your nose. Inhale deeply. Does it smell deliciously sweet and floral, like citrus should? Yes? Buy that one. Do you smell nothing? Put it down and try another.

Once you finally schlep it home, you’ll want to dig in. And here’s where you should take notes, because dissecting a pummelo isn’t as easy as peeling a tangelo, but you’ll be duly rewarded for your efforts.

You will need a sharp knife with a serrated blade, such as a steak knife. The skin is tough. I find it’s easier to peel it first, rather than slice it into sections. Make a horizontal slice to cut off the very top, and start from there. You’ll notice the pith is very thick and fluffy, like cotton batting or the mold found on brie. It’s not meant to be eaten, but I like to tear it apart and examine its structure while I squish it between my fingers.

After you’ve removed all of the pith, you are halfway there. Now you must remove the little juice sacs from the sections. Unlike oranges, or even grapefruit, the skin separating the sections should really not be eaten; it’s awfully bitter. But liberate the actual fruit and you’ll find a sweet treat. It’s not easy, and expect a juicy mess. The easiest way I’ve found to finish the job is to make a slit up the middle of each section, pry apart the section as you would open an oyster or clam, and dig the juice sacs out with your fingers. Or your teeth.

Although I can’t recall the exact circumstances surrounding my first taste of pummelo, I know it must have made quite an impression on me, because the second time I had pummelos, I was in possession of an entire case of them. It was around Thanksgiving in 2001, and my Father had a fruit-grower friend of his send a box from Florida to Vermont, where I was living at the time, because I expressed how much I liked them. I shared them with my co-workers at the co-op store where I was managing the cheese department at the time. None of them had seen, let alone tasted, such a magnificent fruit, and I was happy to introduce them.

This past New Year’s Eve, I went back to Vermont for the long weekend. I had recently purchased one of the biggest pummelos I’ve ever seen, with the express purpose of bringing it from New York City’s Chinatown to my cold-weather friends. When I presented it to my hosts, we decided this festive fruit would be part of our New Year’s Day snacking. Neither Cyndi, Jude, their son Zeke, nor Cyndi’s Dad Harold had ever tried a pummelo, and a New Year calls for a new fruit.

As I contentedly eviscerated the pummelo on the first day of 2007, at my friends’ dining room table, with juice running up to my elbows and thick pieces of peel fanning out from the cutting board, Cyndi remarked, “You’ve been taking that thing apart for the last half-hour!” Yes, it’s true. But as she popped a cluster of sweet, juicy, sublime fruit into her mouth, she understood why.

For more information on pummelos, please visit Purdue University’s horticulture website.


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