There’s a particular fruit stall that I frequent on Thevera Road. Its wares almost literally spill out onto the street, with filled bins overflowing the boundaries of the shop interior, fruit stacked high on shelves going up the ceiling on both walls of the narrow space. The back of the shop has a few tables where people can purchase fruit drinks, but I think the majority of their sales are of the fruit themselves.
There always seems to be something new, depending on the season (or week within the season). One day I entered to find a table overflowing with small, reddish purple plums. I’d never seen what I would call “stone fruit” in India before, so I excitedly pulled out one of my cloth bags and started picking through the pile for the ripest looking specimens. When I see plums it reminds me of living in Europe—where I used the multiple varieties in my version of the classic Tarte Tatin. Before living in Paris I actually had no idea there were so many types of plums, but as summer progressed new varieties would arrive at the Marché, each with more melodic names than the last: Reine Claude, Mirabelle, Belle de Louvain… and with each addition I would remake the tarte, and the family would pronounce that each one was the “perfect” plum for the recipe, eaten of course with a spoon of crème fraîche and the guilty expression of one caught licking the plate upon completion.
Here in India I brought the bag of plums home, expecting to make the tarte that night. But Milo discovered them beforehand…so leave it to say that I returned to the stall the following day to purchase more. The tarte was delicious, the plums giving up their sweet juices to blend into the caramel, but it was not easy to prepare. These were far from the type of plum that requires merely a circumference cut with a paring knife and a twist to remove the stone. The stones of this fruit held fast to the flesh, making the process of cutting them a laborious process. The end product was worth the effort, certainly, but it wasn’t an effort I would engage in frequently.
Shortly after the explosion of plums at the market I came across something I’d never seen before: a mound of rather ugly, squat, greenish pinecone looking things about the size of a small fist. I was intrigued. I picked one up tentatively, not certain of its firmness, and held it out to the shop keeper., asking, “What is this?” She repeated something several times, without my understanding her words. Finally I turned to another customer and held it out. “That’s a Custard Apple,” they said. I’d never heard of it, so couldn’t tell whether the one I was holding was ripe or not. Another person lifted one up and showed me a ripe one and how to open it and eat it. I picked out 4 and brought them home, where they sat like squat little creatures on the table, waiting to be examined and shared with my family.
In the meantime I did a little research. In Kerala the custard apple is called Aathachakka…hence my inability to understand what the shopkeeper was saying. A fascinating fact is that it’s native to both India and the Americas, making me chuckle that if Christopher Columbus had been looking for the custard apple he would have been successful whether he landed on his intended continent or the one where he actually arrived.
Finding it and eating it would be a prize indeed! It opens easily when ripe with a mere pressure of the fingers required to separate the sides, which open to expose clusters of milky white segments. Each segment contains a shiny black seed that wouldn’t be amiss dried, pierced and strung as jewelry. The flesh is sweet and custardy (hence the name), with somewhat of a perfumed quality that we all enjoyed.
I read that the leaves and bark have numerous medicinal qualities and the fruit itself is rich in vitamins, minerals and the now famous antioxidants.
So I can now claim to have bagged a custard apple!