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Fruits and spice and tastes of old-time Florida

By Aaron Kagan
Globe Correspondent / October 31, 2010

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Eden exists and admission is a mere $8. After a juicy bite of freshly picked tropical fruit still warm from the sun, you’ll agree that the Fruit and Spice Park is paradise indeed.

A half-hour drive from Miami International Airport, the park is a Florida attraction unlike the rest. There are no roller coasters, water slides, cartoon characters, or stuffed alligators at this 37-acre facility run by Miami-Dade County. Instead, there are pineapples, cinnamon trees, 150 varieties of mango, and 75 kinds of bananas, all of which you are encouraged to try.

Visitors can stroll the park’s grounds at their leisure or hop aboard a tram for guided tours that frequently stop for samples. Some you eat, but others, like bay rum leaves and allspice berries, are for smelling. You’ll see the origins of familiar products like cocoa, coffee, sugar, and vanilla, as well as specimens you never knew existed. These include the peanut butter fruit, Panama hat plant, a thick-rinded fruit named marmalade box, and mango varieties with names like “donkey killer,’’ “ice cream,’’ and one simply called “Justin.’’

Some fruits resemble other foods. The small blackberry jam fruit is filled with an inky substance that looks, tastes, and even has a seedy texture like its namesake. Dip into a ripe black sapote or “chocolate pudding fruit’’ and you’ll find a sweet, smooth pulp that could pass for the popular dessert. The canistel, or “egg custard fruit,’’ is dense and rich, part fruit, part creme caramel. The park comes close to the room in Willy Wonka’s factory in which every extraordinary thing is edible.

The park also grows miracle fruit, a bizarre berry made famous for its power to turn sour tastes sweet. These little, red African fruits have inspired “flavor tripping’’ parties in which participants eat the berries and then happily drink vinegar and down hot sauce.

The most eye-opening of the park’s offerings are the pepper vines. To compare a fresh peppercorn with the stuff in the shaker is to stand Michelangelo’s “David’’ next to a stick figure. “Pepper more than any other spice loses all of its character and pungency by the time you get it,’’ says Chris Rollins, park manager. “It’s almost worthless. When you try fresh pepper, it blows the top of your head off. It’s just wonderful. . . . But it’s not a like a chili pepper that’s hot and painful,’’ he says. He is right: A pale green peppercorn plucked from the vine wraps the tongue in potent spice and warms the back of the throat long after it has been swallowed.

The pepper vines grow in a greenhouse as part of an Asian plant collection. This sultry space exists for those species that need even more heat than Florida can offer. The greenhouse, which recently opened to the public, is also home to mangosteens, which many consider to be the best fruit in the world. Also new is a landscaped waterfall and lake lined with coconut palms and passion fruit vines. Plans exist to fill the waterway with aquaculture crops such as rice, taro, and papyrus. Last year, the park opened the Mango Cafe, a cozy, bright little restaurant whose menu includes a fruit salad made from the park’s bounty.

Even in the dead of winter, when New England’s fields and orchards are bare, the sample table in the gift shop is brightly colored and fully stocked. Thanks to a year-round growing season, there is always something ripe for the picking. However, like Eden, there are a few rules. There is no picking from trees permitted. Fruit can be sampled only in the gift shop, while on a guided tour, or from the ground (and there is plenty of the latter). As Rollins puts it, “The only fruit you can take out of the park is inside your stomach.’’

Not that people haven’t tried. On more than one occasion employees have observed guests attempting to steal enormous, spiky jackfruits by tucking them under baby blankets and pushing them in strollers. Rollins attributes these acts to nostalgia. “Jackfruit is beloved where it comes from,’’ he says (they originated in India). “It looks like a watermelon wrapped in an alligator skin and it tastes like banana, cantaloupe, and Juicy Fruit gum mixed together. It’s just incredible.’’

If you wish to stock up before leaving the area, visit the nearby fruit stand called Robert Is Here, where many of the same things grown at the park are available for purchase.

Aaron Kagan can be reached at aaronwkagan@gmail.com.

If You Go

Fruit and Spice Park
24801 South West 187th Ave.
Homestead, Fla.
305-247-5727
www.fruitandspicepark.org
Daily 9 a.m-5 p.m. except Christmas. Guided tours daily 11 a.m., 1:30 and 3 p.m. Adults $8, children ages 6-12 $2, under 6 free. The Mango Cafe daily 11:30 a.m.- 4:30 p.m.
Robert Is Here Fruit Stand and Farm
19200 South West 344th St.
305-246-1592
www.robertishere.com
Daily 8 a.m.-7 p.m.; closed September and October