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Developing a Passion for a Tropical Delight

February 20, 1992|KITTY MORSE | Kitty Morse is a writer and cookbook author living in Vista.

The tropical passion fruit found in the gourmet section of most supermarkets hardly seems attractive enough, at first sight, to live up to its lofty appellation.

The purpled-shelled fruit goes by a variety of names, depending on its place of origin. Hawaiians know it as "lillikoi," while their Caribbean counterparts call it "maracuja." In Texas, a flowering variety that produces no edible fruit goes by the name of "maypop."

The fruit bears no relation to the romantic kind of passion, but rather, got its name from the missionaries and early Spanish explorers to Central America who ascribed to the bloom symbols relating to the Passion of Christ. (In the flower, they saw the crown of thorns; its 10 petals symbolized the Apostles present at the Crucifixion; its three styles, the hammers used to drive the nails piercing Christ's hands and feet, and its five pollen-bearing anthers represented Christ's five wounds.)

Although there are small-scale growers in North County, the main growing area for passion fruit in California is in the hills of Carpinteria, and California Tropics leads the way as the main producer in the state.

Peter Nichols, whose grandfather founded the Carpinteria fruit ranch in 1917, recalls eating home-grown passion fruit as a child. It wasn't until 1984, however, that California Tropics went into passion fruit production on a large scale, to counteract New Zealand's predominance on the American market.

One factor in California Tropics' success was the ideal climate of the Carpinteria hills, which makes it possible to grow the fruit almost year-round. Production is heaviest in summer, with the season in California extending from July to the following April, and sometimes through May.

The company found the large, purple Passiflora Edulis, or purple granadilla, ideally suited to the area, although dozens of passion fruit varieties exist worldwide.

In season, pickers gather the fruit off the straw-covered ground, since passion fruit is "self picking" and simply falls off when it is ripe. At that point, it still sports a smooth skin and tends to taste rather sour. Wrinkles form within a week to 10 days as the fruit ripens off the vine and acquires its characteristic sweet-sour flavor. "It's so versatile and you can do so many things with it," says Nichols, who likes to add both fruit and seeds to salads.

Loren Toomey, a grower of passion fruit in Valley Center for the past five years, was inspired to plant the tropical fruit after a visit to New Zealand. Toomey's vines thrive in full sun, along the shores of Lake Turner. "The uglier the fruit, the sweeter the taste," says the soft-spoken farmer, who tends to the most extensive passion fruit operation in North County.

Toomey rues American consumers' lack of awareness for the vitamin-packed fruit. They, as well as produce buyers, need to be educated in the art of choosing and savoring passion fruit, he says, since many potential customers tend to spurn the wrinkled fruit they find on the shelf. While the purple variety is best for eating out of hand, the yellow, grown mainly in Hawaii, is especially good for juicing, according to him.

Toomey and his partner, Bob Polito of the Polito Family Ranch, sell the bulk of their crop to specialty brokers in Los Angeles, but will also pick to order for customers to pick up at the ranch.

Polito also markets passion fruit at many area farmers' markets. He finds that many of his customers come from "down under. "People from New Zealand and Australia who grew up with the fruit really like it," he say.

Passion fruit has a distinctly pungent flavor and is high in Vitamin C. Edible seeds are rich in iron. The pulp can be frozen and stored for months. Although most passion fruit in the United States is grown for juicing, both pulp and seeds make an ideal topping for ice cream, according to Nichols. The pureed fruit adds a "tang" to sauces. You can also freeze the fruit in the shell, and savor the frozen pulp as a sorbet.

California Tropics, Carpinteria, 93013. Wholesale only. Distributed under Frieda's Finest label at most major supermarkets.

Loren Toomey, 11948 Betsworth, Valley Center, 92082. Send self-addressed postcard to be advised of picking dates.

Polito Family Farms, 749-0185. Available in summer at area farmer's markets and from the ranch. Price depends on size.

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