Tejocote is a peculiar crabapple-like fruit common to Mexico but now grown… (David Karp / For The Times )
Reporting from Pauma Valley, Calif. — When Mexican Americans begin celebrating the extended Christmas season this Saturday on the feast day of Guadalupe, they will enjoy one big change from a few years ago: ample supplies of tejocote, a peculiar crab-apple-like fruit that most people have never heard of but that is an indispensable ingredient in ponche, the hot fruit punch emblematic of the holidays. Once the most smuggled fruit on the Mexican border, tejocote is forbidden no more.
Cheap and abundant in the Mexican highlands, tejocote (pronounced te-ho-COT-e) cannot be imported to this country because it can harbor exotic insect pests that could devastate American agriculture. So devotees of authentic ponche have had to resort to frozen or jarred or even smuggled fruit; nationwide, tejocote was the fruit most seized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Smuggling, Interdiction and Trade Compliance program from 2002 to 2006, says Peyton Ferrier, an economist with the department's Economic Research Service.
FOR THE RECORD:
Ponche Villa recipe: A Dec. 9 recipe titled Ponche Villa, which accompanied an article about the fruit tejocote, included the wrong nutritional values. These are correct: Each cocktail: 150 calories; 0 protein; 22 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 0 fat; 0 cholesterol; 22 grams sugar; 7 mg. sodium. —
A decade ago, this dangerous and illicit trade was even more active. Luis Huerta, now a USDA smuggling control officer, says that in 1997, his team confiscated more than 9,000 pounds of fresh Mexican tejocotes at the produce district in downtown L.A. and other local markets.
In a roundabout way, these seizures helped inspire the creation of a lucrative new industry, after a market vendor named Doña Maria asked Huerta how to obtain legal supplies, and he suggested that farmers grow tejocotes domestically. She passed this advice to Jaime Serrato, who was familiar with tejocotes from his childhood in Michoacán, which he left at age 10 when his family immigrated to California, where his father labored in orchards.
Over the years Serrato, 53, became highly successful as a grove manager and exotic fruit grower in Pauma Valley, a lush San Diego County agricultural community north of Valley Center. In addition to farming 1,800 acres of citrus and avocados for other owners, on his own land he specialized in crops that were sought by Latino customers but that could not be imported legally, such as guavas, sweet limes and tejocotes.
Smuggled and backyard tejocote always sold for very high prices, typically $8 to $10 a pound retail, and it is unclear why no one else had seized the opportunity to grow it here. A century ago Francesco Franceschi, a renowned botanist and nurseryman, introduced tejocote to Santa Barbara; and Luther Burbank, the celebrated plant breeder, tried making crosses with the trees at his Gold Ridge Experiment Farm in Sebastopol, Calif.
But there was no commercial production in California until Serrato obtained budwood from the garden of an employee's relative in San Diego 10 years ago and started grafting trees in his orchard.
Serrato harvested his first small tejocote crop five years ago, and today has 35 acres of trees flourishing near his hilltop home. He has experienced a few problems, but today his trees are highly productive -- mature orchards can yield 20 tons per acre in Mexico -- and he has a bumper crop this year.
Serrato sells his fruits through distributors to Latino chain stores such as Superior Grocers and Gonzalez Northgate Markets, and since prices remain high, he perhaps understates his success when he says simply, "It's been a good thing for us."
Tejocote is the common name for Crataegus mexicana and 14 other species of Mexican hawthorns, native to the country's highlands; the name is derived from the Nahuatl word "texocotl," meaning stone fruit. In Guatemala, where the fruit also grows, it is called manzanilla, meaning little apple. Hawthorns, of which there are hundreds of species around the Northern Hemisphere, are pome fruits, cousin to apples and pears and closely related to medlars.
Tejocote trees, which can grow 20 feet tall, are ornamental, with dense, shining leaves. The fruits of various kinds ripen from October to December in California, range from less than an inch to 2 inches in diameter, and vary from yellow-orange to red, often speckled with little black dots. Inside are three or more hard brown seeds. The flesh is mealy and not very tasty raw but has a sweet-tart apple-like flavor when cooked, and is rich in pectin, which contributes an appealing unctuousness to ponche.