One of the more surprising incidents that took place shortly after moving into my current residence, about a year ago, was when my wife encountered a man decked out in full foraging gear: climbing clothes, big basket, gloves, and a long-handled fruit picker. He was traipsing through our backyard in pursuit of an odd green fruit. He apologized, explaining he thought the place was still unoccupied . . . and that he’d been dropping by about once a week to liberate our tree of that strange fruit, which, it turns out, is called the “sapote.”
The sapote (‘sah-poe-tay’) is not widely known nor widely available. According to the California Rare Fruit Growers, “The white sapote is native to central Mexico,” and “The wooly-leaf sapote is native from Yucatan to Costa Rica.” To those in the know living stateside it seems to be something of a polarizing fruit. In my experience, it’s alternately loathed for its dissimilarity to familiar grocery store fare, or fetishized to the point of, well, fans resorting to illegal suburban foraging in neighbors’ yards to acquire them. Or at least special trips to organic/farmer’s markets.
It hangs from a thick old stem; more like a regular tree branch that just happens to be plugged into the top of a fruit. They start greenish then turn yellow as they ripen; to my experience often spotting with dark browns as it gets too ripe. At first glance it appears to be an apple — hence the nickname “custard apple” — but it’s more of a heart shape: large near that stem, coming together (usually asymmetrically) in a pointy little chin. Perhaps the sapote is better compared to a pear than an apple; at least a pear is closer to what it smells like, plus the skin is very pear-like as well — in taste (sort of grainy and wooden) and especially in texture.
The flesh of the fruit? Well, that’s another matter entirely. First you have to find a perfectly ripe one. The sapote is disgusting when under-ripe and tends to become soft very quickly upon ripening. Ripe fruit that fall from a tree don’t “thud” so much as “splat” into a pulpy, sticky, bug-friendly mess. So the trick is to find that green skin slowly turning yellow and check every day; when it gives just a little, you should clip it from above the fruit, leaving in the stem, and let it get a little softer in your kitchen.
But don’t ignore it. That sucker will collapse under its own weight if you forget about it.
But when you time it right, the taste can be spectacular. No joke; it’s like a favorite sun tan lotion transformed into a delicious fruit. Sapote has sort of a tropical flavor, with a coconut undertone, a little bit of pear, and maybe hints of papaya. But mostly just possessing its just its own flavor. The good ones are especially good and the flavor just explodes onto the tongue. It’s also very, very sweet, and packs a hell of a glycemic load. The California Rare Fruit Growers reference ” an effect upon the central nervous system,” which may or may not be true. It does make me feel a little funny to eat, but I’d probably just attribute it to all that sugar content.
The flesh itself, while tasty, is a little odd — again, remember “custard apple.” Similar to a cherimoya (another weird fruit), you can just scoop it with a spoon if it’s the right level of ripeness. It’s a dense, smooth, juice-laden flesh whose mouth feel may just not be suited to the American palate. I’ve experienced some perfectly delicious, ripe sapotes that for some reason had a very grainy flesh rather than smooth to boot.
The seeds are small but exactly the same color as the flesh and hard to avoid by sight. I’ve found it easiest to slice the sapote, de-seed it with a spoon, then cut it in spears, holding it by the skin to eat but stopping short of consuming the skin.
But what are they worth? For the elucidation of those without a tree in their yard or a neighbor to steal from, I’ve seen them in a local organic grocery store for $7+ a pound, not to mention totally green, which, frankly, is insane. The local Farmer’s Market has them for more like $3 a pound, but they were small and not close to ripe either.
Sapote is odd, high maintenance, and I’m not sure there’s too much you can do with it besides eat it straight. Or, of course, turn it into an infused vodka — which, like in the case of mulberries, I am convinced is the best way to share our bounty.
On balance, it’s an amazing experience on the rare and highly manufactured circumstances in which you can get a perfect one. Pick at the right time, don’t wait too long, avoid all the seeds . . .
The sapote is definitely worth a try. However, if I didn’t have a tree full, I doubt I’d eat them more than once in a blue moon. (And I certainly would not pay $7/pound).