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Durango’s taste buds wake up

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Lance Giuliano, produce manager at Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage, and a few examples of cherimoya, one of the exotic fruits the store sells.

By Dale Rodebaugh Herald staff writer

Familiar tropical fruits such as bananas, papayas, mangos and pineapples are being joined in Durango grocery store produce aisles by lesser-known but no less savory ones.

Cherimoyas, rambutans, passion fruit, thumb-sized bananas, dragon fruit and golden raspberries are largely immigrants from warmer climes – although sometimes cultivated in California and Florida – that have appeared in Durango only recently.

Take the cherimoya as an example.

“We received cherimoyas for the first time three weeks ago,” said Lance Giuliano, produce manager at Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage. “Vitamin Cottage encourages produce managers to get interesting items.

“Interesting to me means something I’ve tried myself,” Giulano said. “Price is a second consideration – I don’t want an item that people won’t buy.”

The cherimoya, native to the Andes, means cold seeds in Quechua, but it’s grown in Asia, Central America and South America and Southern California. The fruit is greenish, irregularly shaped and ranges from fist-sized to the size of a cantaloupe.

The texture of the cherimoya lends itself to making a dairy-free, sugar-free, gluten-free frozen dessert with the addition of a banana and coconut milk. Ask Giuliano for the recipe.

Only a handful of exotic fruits have turned up in Durango, but hundreds are available through exotic fruit clubs.

“We sell more than 400 exotic fruits,” said Amy, a member of a family produce business that started in 1899, which now runs the websites featuring exotic fruits. Amy said she’s not allowed to give her last name from her office in Corona, Calif.

“We get fruit in season from South America, Asia, Europe and the United States,” she said. “I have five online sites, the most popular of which are www.24hourbestbuy.com and www.buyexoticfruits.com.”;

Fruit shipments from abroad have to pass customs and U.S. Department of Agriculture inspections, Amy said. Just last week a shipment of mangosteens from Thailand was rejected.

“Our customers howl when this happens,” Amy said. “But there’s nothing we can do.”

In Durango, Danny Bohren, produce manager at Albertsons, is curious and opts for fruits that aren’t on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

“I’m going to have dragon fruit in a couple of weeks,” Bohren said Monday. “If customers ask, ‘What’s that?’ I’ll give them a taste.

“If something catches their attention, they often ask ‘What else do you have?’”

Dragon fruit is obtained from a species of cactus as are pitayas.

At the moment, Bohren has rambutans and passion fruit.

“The passion fruit arrives like this,” Bohren said, displaying a lemon-sized, purplish fruit with a smooth skin. “When they get wrinkled, like this other one, they’re sweet and ready to eat.”

The passion fruit is native to Brazil and Paraguay but is grown around the world, including California and Florida. Varieties vary from round to oval and range in size from a lemon to a grapefruit.

The rambutan, native to the Indonesian archipelago, is round, reddish-brown, about the size of a small lemon and covered with soft prickly hairs. In fact, the name derives from the Malay word for hairy.

The outer skin is split to reveal a gummy grape-sized flesh with a small seed inside.

It is eaten fresh or in juice, preserves or desserts.

Shane Foxx, a produce-operations specialist with Albertsons in Albuquerque, said the chain offers 350 “different” fruits, vegetables and herbs to its stores. He is responsible for 15 outlets in New Mexico and the Durango store.

Every Albertsons store can order through the chain’s buyers, who check for quality and value, Foxx said.

“As shoppers figure out how to use these items, our sales have increased,” Foxx said by telephone. “They’ll see a cooking show on television that brings a variety of items to the forefront.”

At Natural Grocers, the cherimoyas got the attention of Jyoti Conradi, who had queried Giuliano about young Thai coconuts.

“They’re the perfect hydration drink,” Conradi said, adding when the conversation turns to dragon fruit, “I bought all they had here the last time.”

“Our suppliers give us lists of interesting things to buy for Durango,” Giuliano said. “We buy locally and from around the world.”

All produce is organic, and is washed with filtered water, said Giuliano, who grew up working with Giuliano Speciality Foods, a family business, and he has a degree in food science and nutrition from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

“If I’m not familiar with a fruit, I do research,” Giuliano said. “Our sales of these fruits have increased, especially in the last year.”

daler@durangoherald.com

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