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Market Watch: Australian finger limes make a splash in Santa Monica

Also, Hayground Organic Gardening's Jimmy Williams has a new book out: 'From Seed to Skillet.'

November 12, 2010|By David Karp
  • Australian finger limes grown by Jim Shanley of Venice Hill Ranch in Visalia, available soon at the Santa Monica farmers market.
Australian finger limes grown by Jim Shanley of Venice Hill Ranch in Visalia,… (David Karp )

One of the rarest and most sought-after fruits, the Australian finger lime, has started showing up in significant quantities at the Santa Monica farmers market, creating a minor sensation. The fruit's appearance is enough to excite wonder: from the outside it looks like a little gherkin, but when sliced in half, the round, pearlescent juice vesicles ooze out of the fruit, like citrus caviar. The clean, fresh, tart lime-lemon taste is enticing enough, but the texture, crunchy and juicy, like citrus Pop Rocks, is even more prepossessing.

"This is so cool. I'm really excited," said Evan Funke, chef at Rustic Canyon, fascinated by the translucent drops. He was among the crowd of chefs, purveyors and regular market-goers who clustered around the Shanley Farms stand at last Wednesday's market, as Jim Shanley of Visalia and his daughter Megan explained what the fruit is and how to use it.

One of a half-dozen species of Australasian citrus, the finger lime is native to the rain forests of eastern Australia. It is not directly related to familiar Bearss and Mexican limes. Although the species was first brought to the United States more than a century ago, only in the last six years have disease-tested, legal budwood became available to nurseries for propagating the trees, and farmers started commercial plantings. In California, about 40 acres have been planted, or will be shortly; of those, perhaps only a third have started to bear.

The best way to use the fruit is to cut it in half and squeeze out the juice vesicles, like pushing toothpaste out of a tube. The rind is thin and edible in theory but too tough to be pleasurable to eat, though it can be used in marmalades or as a garnish. As with other acid citrus, finger lime pulp is mostly too sour to eat fresh by itself. But it is used as a garnish, in upscale cocktails, on persimmons and as a counterpoint to seafood (it's great on oysters). Josiah Citrin of Mélisse says that he is using finger lime caviar in a red miso vinaigrette with hamachi poisson cru.

Commercial production, in tiny quantities, began just last year. Demand far exceeds supply, so prices are high for now. Both the Shanleys, who have 1,500 finger lime trees, and Mud Creek Ranch of Santa Paula, which has just 12, were selling the fruit last Wednesday for $10 in half-pint plastic clamshells, roughly 6 ounces each. That's not cheap, but a little goes a long way. For the skeptical or frugal, the Shanleys also sell individual fruits for 50 cents.

The season runs October through December and probably longer in coastal plantings. Shanley Farms, which is new to the Santa Monica market, will sell there at least for the next several weeks. Like other new growers of this crop, Jim Shanley is still learning how to farm the wiry, thorny trees, which are as difficult to harvest from as a tangle of barbed wire. For many basic horticultural practices, such as rootstocks, pruning and irrigation, he is finding out by trial and error what works best, he said.

Similarly, buyers are just starting to learn, now that finger limes are becoming available, how to choose and use them. The fattest, plumpest specimens, packed with juicy pulp, are most desirable; thin, scrawny examples provide fewer vesicles. The fruits vary in color from purplish or greenish black, the most typical hues, to light green or rusty red. All are good, but the purplish examples are more likely to have pulp with an attractive pinkish tinge. The fruits have few seeds — a definite advantage — when grown in uniform blocks, away from other citrus varieties with viable pollen from flowers that bloom at the same time.

Because of their thin skins, finger limes kept on the kitchen counter at room temperature dry out in five days or so. But when stored in the refrigerator, they can last several weeks, developing only minor cosmetic blemishes.

Another major grower, Lisle Babcock of Deer Creek Heights Ranch, in Terra Bella, is selling finger limes to Whole Foods stores in the Los Angeles area, where the fruits will be available in the seafood department for 50 cents apiece starting next Wednesday, said Jeff Biddle, the chain's produce coordinator for Southern California.

If all goes well, finger limes could be a mainstream product, grown on hundreds of acres and widely available at supermarkets, Shanley said. Only time will tell whether his enthusiasm is warranted, but meanwhile, market-goers have a new fruit to experience.

'From Seed to Skillet'

One of the many growers at Wednesday's market intrigued by Shanley's finger limes was Jimmy Williams of Hayground Organic Gardening, who said he wanted to offer the trees at his nursery stand. He himself has a new crop: a book, "From Seed to Skillet: A Guide to Growing, Tending, Harvesting, and Cooking Up Fresh, Healthy Food to Share With People You Love" (Chronicle Books, $30).

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