Maui Adventures: Tropical Fruit Tasting in Hana

After many hours, the afternoon sun and designated mailbox eventually indicated I had reached my turn off. Up a steep and windy dirt road, the tiny rental car chugged and bucked through 50 acres of pure organic paradise along the southeastern slopes of Haleakala volcano; my excitement continued to build as the driveway kept winding ever upwards. As the dirt road came to an end I was greeted with a covered seating area and an impressive display of exotic tropical fruit with people milling about eagerly. The Road to Hana had led me to my final destination- the Ono Organic Farm.

A lost piece of luggage and the consequent voucher placed me in the middle of a solo adventure in a Hawaiian paradise last month. A full week to myself on the island of Maui to explore and do whatever I pleased. It would be my first visit to Hawaii, and seeing that I had only my own desires to consider my plans naturally were food focused. I find that travel and immersing myself in the food and culture of a new place is the purest form of continuing education as a chef.

As I “googled” and planned from my AirBNB, I contemplated whether I should spend an entire day passing around the 600 plus turns and estimated 54 one lane bridges on the famous Road to Hana. The journey itself replete with dynamic vistas, rainbow eucalyptus trees, and one waterfall and pull off after another had just about sealed the deal, and then I found what I didn’t realize I was looking for… a website for Ono Organic Farm and their tropical fruit tasting adventure! The more I read, the more I was certain this was one adventure well worth a drive for this chef and the perfect capstone to my journey along the Road to Hana. A couple clicks later and I had bought my ticket. I could hardly wait!

The day finally came and I was up before the sun programming an address into the GPS and setting up a Road to Hana app on my phone.  I set off on the road from Lahaina and headed towards Paia and with the tasting ticket in hand, start time, a rough estimate of mile marker, and a picture of what the mailbox looked like to indicate which driveway I needed to take up to the farm – I was on my way. I drove along the curvy, picturesque road mile after mile through sun bursts and rain showers pulling over at many of the road side treats along the way. I climbed in lava tubes, played on black sand beaches, ate Aunty Sandy’s fresh banana bread in Kanae, sampled Coconut Glen’s vegan lilikoi (passionfruit) ice cream and continued ever onwards toward the farm. It was sheer bliss and yet it was just the beginning.

After many hours, the afternoon sun and designated mailbox eventually indicated I had reached my turn off. Up a steep and windy dirt road, the tiny rental car chugged and bucked through 50 acres of pure organic paradise along the southeastern slopes of Haleakala volcano; my excitement continued to build as the driveway kept winding ever upwards. As the dirt road came to an end I was greeted with a covered seating area and an impressive display of exotic tropical fruit with people milling about eagerly. The Road to Hana had led me to my final destination- the Ono Organic Farm.

Tasting Table

Here I would spend the afternoon with a small group of people for an exotic tropical fruit tasting adventure including samples of at least a dozen in-season tropical fruits, home grown coffee, and home grown and roasted cacao beans. As we waited for the rest of the people to find their way, I savored a mug full of delicious, fresh, hyper-local coffee and gazed in wonder at the table laden with brightly colored tropical fruits in the middle of the covered area.

Tasting Table2
Clockwise: Bananas, Vi Fruit, Egg Fruit, Jabuticaba, Rambutan
Tasting Table3
Clockwise: Bananas, Mountain Apples, Chico Sapote, Avocado, Longan, Atemoya

It wasn’t long before we began our tasting adventure and much to my delight began to work through every single one of the items on the display table. I learned so many wonderful things and tried over a dozen fruits the likes of which I have never seen, even with my many years of working in the food service industry or that could be referenced in my trusty “Food Lover’s Companion” book. Surrounded by the lush jungle where four generations of the Boerner family have been organic farmers, I sat eagerly, notebook in hand and jotted as many interesting tidbits between samples as I could. In the Hawaiian language, “ono” means most delicious and each sample of hand-picked premium fruit I tried further proved Ono Organic Farm was aptly named. The day ended with a tour around the farm and even more opportunities to try items straight from the source! When it finally came time to get back in my little compact rental to begin the long journey home, I left with a full belly, a full heart, and a notebook full of culinary inspiration.Tasting Session

If you ever find yourself on the Road to Hana and favor the food-focused itineraries like myself, I highly recommend a visit to Ono Organic Farm! While I couldn’t possibly begin to list all the amazing information shared that day on the farm, I have jotted down some of my favorites! Here are just some of the many fun fruit facts I learned during my tropical fruit adventure in Hana!

Jabuticaba

A purple, thick-skinned berry with an astringent skin, but sweet gelatinous flesh, similar to a grape. This berry ferments fast, so is a very rare find outside of areas that grow it. Often used in jams, jellies, and tarts.

Longan

Longon
Longan
Longon2
Inside of the Longan

This small round fruit has a thin, brown shell surrounding a translucent white, juicy fruit around a center black seed. It is sweet and perfumy in flavor and is related to the soapberry family, of which lychee and rambutan are also a part.

 

Mountain Apples

A small bell shaped fruit with waxy red/pink skin, that grows wild and has a soft, slightly crunchy texture and distinct rose taste. Not actually a relative of the traditional apple tree though. They said a tree only produces fruit just two weeks of the year!

Jackfruit

The world’s largest fruit from the same family as breadfruit which has pebbly skin and can grow up to 100 pounds! It houses gold fleshy pods when ripe and has a sweet flavor like that of Juicy Fruit bubblegum.

 

Star Apple
Star Apple

Star Apple

A purplish fruit roughly the size of an apple named for the starburst shape of the core. There is a thin layer of natural latex in the skin, so do not bite into it – instead slice it up. This latex keeps insects from stinging and burrowing into the fruit. Avoid the rock hard, black seeds as well! Another rare find as it bruises and ferments easily!

 

 

Atemoya

Atemoya
Atemoya

This fruit is in the custard apple family, related to the cherimoya and soursop. Roughly the size of a bell pepper with a green, petal textured skin. It is soft, sweet, tangy and creamy like a sorbet- almost like a blend of mango and vanilla. The flesh is studded with large black seeds which you should not eat.

Egg Fruit

This fruit is creamy & rich like an egg yolk and great for soups, raw pies, and curries. Tear drop shaped, golden yellow with a big seed in the middle (toss this); also, known as canistell. It had the texture of cooked pumpkin, but with a tangy taste.

Durian

Durian fruit is harvested fresh on their farm in October, but most of the durian is shipped to the mainland. Durian fruit has a semi-hard, spiky shell and has an incredibly nauseating smell, indeed is often outlawed in certain venues, such as public transit and airlines. Each fruit can have one to six pods of custardy like flesh around one center seed. A durian blossom has six parts and each part must be pollinated to bear fruit!

Chico Sapote

Chico Sapote
Chico Sapote

This little brown fruit has a texture similar to a pear, but tastes like brown sugar! The skin is edible, but a little fuzzy.

Pineapple

Maui Gold Pineapple grown over island is very sweet and has low acid. Ready to eat when the top twists off easily! White pineapple is another varietal, that is even more sweet and not fibrous, but is hard to grow.

Papaya

When planting papaya, they put three plants per hole as there are male, female, and hermaphroditic plants. The hermaphroditic plants are the ones that bear the traditional “papaya” shape, while the female plants bear a round fruit and males do not produce. The papaya of the female fruit trees tend to have fewer seeds. There is a large center cavity filled with grayish-black seeds which are edible, but extremely peppery! I have never been a big fan of papaya, but it was recommended to pair a slice of fruit with a squeeze of fresh Tahiti lime juice and it was absolutely delicious! It completely changed the flavor to me.

Papaya & Tahitian Lime
Papaya & Tahiti Lime

 

Tahiti Lime

A sweet, pale yellow lime that is actually a cross between a key lime and a lemon. Accents fresh papaya incredibly well!

 

 

Bilimbi

This tree was incredibly bizarre looking like it had an infestation of small pickles growing all over it! We were welcomed to pick one and try it…it was very much like a pickle in texture, but was terribly sour, like atomic war head. I thought my face was going to turn inside out! Used for items like chutneys, relishes, preserves or to add a sour flavor to curries or soups.

Bananas

There were a variety of bananas grown on the farm. Cuban red bananas are a starchier banana and often used for cooking, while the apple bananas are small and sweet and the most commonly eaten banana in the islands. The ice cream banana was another that has a “fluffier” texture. It takes 18 months for a tree to produce stalk of bananas. At harvest plant throws off shoot “babies,” so the whole tree is cut down with the stalk of bananas to force nourishment to the baby trees.

 

Coffee

Unfortunately, a beetle infestation has made it to the islands that bores into coffee trees killing it in just a couple of weeks. Most places on the island had stopped production (or at least tours) to get rid of beetle. It apparently had hit the Big Island hard as well, so if you have been wondering why the Kona coffee prices are so high right now…that is why!Coffee

Coconut Sprout
Sprouting Coconut
Coconut Husking
Coconut Husking Demo
Coconut Foam
The coconut water on a sprouted coconut turns to a foam as nourishment for the sprout! It tasted like coconut flavored styrofoam packing peanuts!

La Dolce Vita

Italy did not disappoint. It delivered “la dolce vita” at every turn. It surrounds you with an air of decadence and leisure, just absolutely begging you to sit back, relax, and enjoy. Couples dressed in formal wear sauntered down the cobbled alleys just to indulge in a bit of gelato by the Trevi fountain; a stark contrast against the frenzied mass of tourists. Pizza is nibbled slowly with fork and knife. Meals are never hurried.

Last fall I embarked on a journey with my parents. A trip of a lifetime a long time coming. See my family has had its fair share of ups and downs, mostly medical, and we had finally decided to shift our focus and make time to enjoy the present. An extended trip overseas became the daily topic of conversation. Neither my mom or dad had been on a trip aboard. Neither had a passport. My mom at 63 years old had never been on a plane. Both of them had mobility concerns. It was an idea equally exciting and scary. And it would require quite a lot of planning.

So where to go? Originally, Italy was solely where we would adventure for a time. A few weeks perhaps. Eventually, the plan included many countries, as it was uncertain whether either parent could make such a journey again. Might as well go all out. The resulting plan being two months chock-full of adventures. However, no matter how the plans shifted and grew, it always began in Italy.

DSCN8782Ahhhh Italy. The mere mention of it excites. For many years my mom has longed to go to Italy. To eat the food, speak the language, enjoy the coveted “dolce vita” or “sweet life” which we see in so many films, but seems to pass us by back in the states. While my dad claims he could care less about the food or the sweet life (yeah right), Italy was still a perfect choice for him as seeing art and history are two of his favorite things. I, of course, was going for the food. All things food. I had never been to Italy before. I was ecstatic.

Italy did not disappoint. It delivered “la dolce vita” at every turn. It surrounds you with an air of decadence and leisure, just absolutely begging you to sit back, relax, and enjoy. Couples dressed in formal wear sauntered down the cobbled alleys just to indulge in a bit of gelato by the Trevi fountain; a stark contrast against the frenzied mass of tourists. Pizza is nibbled slowly with fork and knife. Meals are never hurried.

DSCN8893
Late dinner in Rome at a small ristorante tucked in an alley 
Connecting Before a Meal
Guests connecting before dinner over a glass of Prosecco at Castello di Proceno

For me, it was this pace of the culture that sticks most now as I think back. We spent three sometimes four hours or more enjoying a meal. Perhaps it is because I am an American chef, but the pace of managing a kitchen and surrounding meals, while food-centric, is rushed. There is always something to do and as much as I love food, meals are often inhaled and usually enjoyed while hovering over a trash can or at my desk while sending emails. After a long day at work, my meal at home satisfies, but again often hurried and enjoyed at the sink or on the couch. Pure, unadulterated time to truly savor the deliciousness, the work that went into making it, the resources used to get it in front of you, and the company you are sharing it with, is lacking. The only things done with any sort of hurry in Italy, that I saw, were taking shots of espresso at the bar and driving a Vespa. Beyond that, people enjoyed. People were present. Being in Italy made me realize how much more I could love and enjoy food, if only I deliberately slowed down and took the time more often.

So we took a cue from the Italians. We savored. We lingered. We laughed (mostly when we realized this casual pace was exactly the pace my mom always took to navigate meals with her dentures). We enjoyed gelato by the Trevi fountain. We nibbled pizza with fork and knife (which is much more difficult than it sounds). And I brought it back with me. I have cleared my table, so I can sit and enjoy my meals at home. I try to make a point to mosey the local farmers’ market on a day off, grocery list in hand and meet the people that grow and make the food. I do it because at the end of the day when it comes to food and people, it isn’t about convenience; it is about connection. Sometimes we all can use a little reminder. Italy did that for me.