Unusual fruits can be found as the growing season winds down

It's 10 on a humid Saturday morning in early October, and I'm eating spoonfuls of a locally-grown fruit called a pawpaw that tastes like toasted custard mixed with mangos.

I'm not on vacation in an equatorial paradise; the pawpaw grows wild right here in Western Pennsylvania. In fact, I shook mine from a tree not too far from where I live. Look with a keen eye, and you can find the yellow-green oblongs hanging from trees in the woods, in nearby parks and even, like I did, from trees shading the streets of some of Pittsburgh's core neighborhoods.

"The number one reaction people have is, 'What's that?' The next thing they usually say is, 'I had no idea these were local,'" said Manchester's Alison Keating, who was offering free samples of the fruit at Farmers@Firehouse market this past weekend.

The pawpaw is the rebellious member of a family of tropical fruits. While the rest of their brethren bloom in the land of pina coladas, the pawpaw's native habitat extends north of the Canadian border into southern Ontario.

"It's this fruit that's always been growing in the woods here, but it's been pretty neglected in recent times," said Andy Moore, also of Manchester, who's writing a book about the pawpaw.

The pawpaw is just one of several unusual, under-the-radar fruits that can add variety to the traditional autumn harvest of apples, pears and grapes.

Eat like an Italian

"If it provides fruit, they'll grow it," said Mary Menniti of the Italian Garden Project.

I met her on a dazzling autumn afternoon in Sewickley, where a small community of Italian gardeners amazed me with their array of fall fruits. It was hard to find a tree in any of their yards that wasn't growing something edible. One gardener even had a stand of pawpaw trees -- not typically Italian, but certainly a confirmation of Ms. Menniti's statement.

There were the expected apple and pear trees, and grapes aplenty to be plucked from their arbors. However, I found the fig and American persimmon trees especially exciting and enticing. I associated both fruits with the warmer climates, yet here they were growing in yards less than 15 miles from Downtown.

According to Mrs. Menniti, this is a banner year for persimmons. There's a tall, wide persimmon tree in the yard of Maria and Giovanni Macchione, who've nurtured a home orchard on their corner lot since they moved to Sewickley from Calabria, Italy, in 1960. On the day of my visit, their persimmon tree was laden with hard, yellow-green fruits the size of baseballs.

"You pick them in late October, when they're gold," Maria Macchione said.

She cautioned that they're not ready to eat right after you pick them. Eat them too soon, and the astringency from the tannins in the skin will make your mouth pucker like "it's filled with cotton." First, you have to let them sit in a cool, dark spot for as many as two months until they're bright red and soft. If you wait until they feel almost like a water balloon, your patience will be rewarded with a sweet molasses flavor. "They taste so good, just like candy." Mrs. Macchione said.

Also growing in her yard were fig trees. Gardeners here go to great lengths to keep alive their fig trees, which, unlike American persimmon, pawpaw and kiwi berries, are not botanically suited to grow in this area. Some even tie them up like mummies and bury them in the ground so that the trees are unaffected by harsh weather.

After visiting the Macchione's yard, I understood why they go through the trouble. Mrs. Macchione searched through her trees, branches full of figs, and fed me deep purple fruits that tasted like vegetal honey. Mrs. Macchione said the figs reminded her of growing up in southern Italy, and it was worth battling the birds everyday to have a taste of home.

Not your standard kiwi

One of my favorite fall fruits is the kiwi berry, also known as hardy kiwi. "When they're ready to eat, they're one of the ugliest things I've seen in a fruit," said Dave Jackson, owner of Kiwi Berry Organics in Danville.

Pop a shriveled, grape-sized fruit -- skin and all --into your mouth for a flavor that melds a traditional kiwi with hints of apple, mint and pineapple.

Although the berries are a popular component at the margins of permaculture landscapes, there are just a handful of commercial kiwi-berry businesses in the United States. Kiwi berries are a challenge to grow on a large scale; it takes at least seven years for a vine to start producing fruit, and the plant is easily damaged by late-spring frosts. Mr. Jackson's operation, one of the biggest in the country, produces about 30,000 pounds of berries annually.

One of his varieties -- the 'Passion Popper' -- is especially addictive. He spent years developing the fruit for high sugar and mineral content. "All kiwi berries at not alike. What we're doing in Pennsylvania is we're making better berries," he said.

Kiwi berries might be tough to find, but they're worth seeking out. Kiwi Berry Organics' direct-order business is sold out for the season, but Wild Purveyors in Upper Lawrenceville will have Mr. Jackson's berries in limited supply for another few weeks. The East End Food Co-Op in Point Breeze also sells kiwi berries imported from Oregon.

Other sources

If you don't have a pawpaw or persimmon tree in your yard, or foraging isn't your thing, I recommend visiting a farmers market to try some unusual autumn fruits.

Even the typically mundane can be exciting. Take heirloom apples now available. Vendors such as Sand Hill Berry Farms are introducing customers to a wide variety beyond the familiar supermarket ones. 'Black Twig,' 'Rustycoats' and 'Scott Winter' are just a few of the heritage apples you can try from the Mount Pleasant growers. One of my favorites is the 'Hubbardston Nonesuch,' an old Massachusetts variety. It's large, crisp and sweet, with just a touch of acidity. It's a perfect afternoon snacking apple.

Or, try a ground cherry. Sometimes called husk cherries, these marble-sized cousins of the tomatillo are popular with farmers because they have large yields even when grown in poor-quality soil. You can simply remove the husk and enjoy the soft, tart, pineapple-like flavor. Or, peel back the husk and dip the bottom portion in melted chocolate for a simple dinner-party starter. Ground cherries also pair well with other fruits. For example, at Cure in Upper Lawrenceville, ground cherries nestled in apricot puree are served as a complement to a Pennsylvania cheese plate. They're pretty easy to find, too. Nathan Holmes of Clarion River Organics plans to sell them for the next few weeks.

Ms. Keating plans on sampling pawpaws for another week or two, and Aldo Sauro sells figs at the East Liberty and Bloomfield markets.

Correction, posted Oct. 18, 2013: The spelling of Alison Keating's first name has been corrected.

Hal B. Klein holds a master's in food studies from Chatham University and writes for The Allegheny Front, Pittsburgh City Paper and other outlets: halbklein@gmail.com and on Twitter @ThisMansKitchen. First Published October 9, 2013 8:00 PM


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