From the outside, the pawpaw is a humble fruit. Its skin, a lacklustre chartreuse, bruises easily, and it resembles an unripe, banged-up mango more than anything else. But take a bite of its creamy, soft flesh and it is absolute heaven. The tropical flavours of banana and guava mixed with a touch of persimmon spread across your tongue. It’s hard to believe this exotic fruit is indigenous to Ontario’s Carolinian forest; it’s so rare few Canadians even know of its existence. But in the past few years, the pawpaw has gone from almost extinct to yearned-for local delicacy. With a revival under way, foodies are clamouring for a taste.
Most people eat the pawpaw raw—like a papaya, which is sometimes called a pawpaw even though it’s a different fruit. They peel the skin, then cut the fruit in half, removing the shiny, brown, fava-bean-like seeds and slicing the flesh. When I tasted my first pawpaws last year, I never made it to the table to eat them because I’d devoured the entire fruit before I could sit down. Mark Picone, professor of the Niagara Culinary Institute, who has been eating pawpaws for years and thus has more patience, has concocted desserts like pawpaw pastry cream, pawpaw tart with a spelt crust, steamed pawpaw pudding with screech ice cream (yes, that screech—Newfoundland’s dark rum), and butter tart with pawpaw. “It’s an incredible emulsifier. It really brings flavours together,” he says.
Though try to get your hands on a Canadian pawpaw this season. Forbes Wild Foods, a Toronto-based wild foods procurer that has sold pawpaws to the public for the past few years, has a waiting list for this year’s ripening fruit. Chefs are searching for them, too. The local-foods supply company 100 km Foods Inc. sources just enough to sell to an exclusive list of restaurants. “We can only mention them to a minimal number of people,” says owner Grace Mandarano. “Because if we told everyone, they would all want them.”
It’s a straightforward case of demand overshadowing supply. The wild pawpaw is indigenous to a long swath of continent, stretching from Nebraska to Florida and up to Ontario—Native Americans harvested the fruit and later introduced them to the Europeans. But in Canada the tree is elusive. Though it’s lived quietly in the understorey of the Carolinian forest at least since the last ice age, surviving on the shores of lakes Erie and Ontario, in recent decades urbanization has threatened its habitat. (The species is more common in southerly states. In Kentucky, according to Kirk Pomper, a horticulturalist at Kentucky State University, trees grow at the side of the road and in backyards, and you can find the fruit for sale at some farmers’ markets.)
Somewhere in history, the pawpaw disappeared from Canadians’ consciousness, too. My grandmother, who grew up in the 1920s in pawpaw country, had never heard of the fruit until I told her about it the other day. These days, the cultivated cousin of the wild pawpaw is feeding the revival. Linda Grimo and her dad Ernie, who run a fruit and nut farm in Niagara-on-the-Lake as well as a nursery, sell more than 600 trees a year to hobbyists and farmers. They also sell the fruit from their mature trees, but only if you promise to return the genetic material intact—unlike an apple tree, the seeds from a sweet-tasting fruit will grow into trees that produce the same. So the lucky chefs who buy the Grimos’ fruit save the seeds and send them back.
Already demand has raised the possibility of a commercial industry in Ontario. When a local fruit grower lost her contract with Del Monte, Linda Grimo told her that pawpaws were the future. And Torrie Warner, who cultivates 60 acres of peaches, pears and quinces in the Niagara region, has already followed Grimo’s advice; when the local fruit-canning plant and grape-juicing facility both shut down, he replaced some of his pear trees with pawpaws. He plans to sell to the public in four years.
In pawpaw season the Grimos eat as many as they can. “We have them for breakfast, we have them for lunch, we have them for dinner,” says Ernie. If they get their wish, many others will soon be gorging on them. Paul De Campo, leader of Slow Food Toronto, who has a fruit-producing pawpaw tree in his front yard, wants the pawpaw listed as a Canadian heritage food on the Slow Food “Ark of Taste,” which would further publicize it. But it all hinges on farmers, says Grimo. “That’s what it is going to take—more people putting in this crop. Then it will be easily accessible to everybody. Hopefully one day it will be in the grocery store.”