More Weird Fruit: An Introduction to the Sapote

June 16, 2010
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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).

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9 Responses to More Weird Fruit: An Introduction to the Sapote

  1. Carol Terry on June 17, 2010 at 9:34 pm

    Sapote is a delicacy that few people have a chance to taste. Lotusland used to have a wonderfull large tree in their fruit orchard. It was removed to make room for a path when they opened to the public. There is a tree behind the little market at Garden St. and Victoria and another behind the copy shop on E. Anapamu.
    Try your luck there and you may find one that hasn’t splatted.

  2. Peter Novak on June 18, 2010 at 7:29 am

    You have delicately skirted the “issue” of the skin of the sapote…..it is a powerful and effective laxative!

  3. Jeremy Nisen on June 18, 2010 at 7:44 am

    I had no idea!!!! Thanks!

  4. Katie Funk on June 18, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    I have the same tree in my backyard on the mesa! mmmmm. I’ve been enjoying sapote’s for years and years.

  5. wendy foster on June 18, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    I have a sapote that is large, but it is thin, and bears practically no fruit. What is the matter?

  6. Markkos on October 26, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    Hello,

    I recently started growing the White Sapote, and discovered a bit of new information. At least I never heard of this solution. The fruit becomes bitter the longer it stays on the tree to ripen. Many sources say to pick it when it is “just so”. This doesn’t work well. The best solution is to pick the fruit when it is still very hard, but pick it when it is just getting the yellow spots and orange color areas on the skin. Then, I cut off a small slice of the skin, near the blossom end, just about a square inch, barely cut below the skin. This somehow causes the hard fruit to ripen over the next three days (two or three, depending on the room temperature). Then, test it just like an avocado. You will see that for some reason they will all ripen together (usually three days after the cut). Then, when it is just getting soft to the touch, not too soft, it tastes best just barely soft. Then, you should skin them, and sllice them up, discard the seeds and eat. You can also chop the flesh into small squares and freeze for a dessert later. If you pick them too yellow, or let them ripen on the tree, they just turn bitter and they don’t store well at all, and you’ll have no control on the ripening timing. I don’t know why this cutting method works, but if you do this, they will taste like a true custard when you do this, and they become very sweet and are not bitter. I hit on this one day by experimenting and have tested it many time now, and found out this seems to every time for White Sapotes. Now, I pick them when they are still rock hard, but turning bright orange on parst of the skin. I then cut them so I’ll have all the fruit ripen in those three days (under my timing needs). I know this sounds crazy and strange, but it works. This also makes storing and transporting these easier. They will stay rock hard until you cut them, as they will turn bitter if you don’t cut them. I think this is some defense mechanism for the fruit that forces it to ripen quicker, and it doesn’t get a chance to turn bitter, as I use them when they just turn soft enough to eat.

    Try it, you’ll be shocked at how well this works. Of course I have my own tree, so I eat a lot of these now (but, it puts put out just too many fruit to only eat fresh, so I also freeze chunks of the flesh when they just turn ripe.

    If you have a tree that is tall and thin, you should top the main trunk at some 15′. This will encourage horizontal branching. You also should get some bags of mulch and pour them out and create a slighly rasied mulch circle, start a few inches away from the trunk and spread out to the drip line, and, of course, since they are a distant relative of the orange, I have used a citrus fertilizer spike or two, placed between the trunk and drip line. That should make it happy. They also like a good deep watering periodically (once a week in the summer, if you live in a very hot summer area). Mine is a large specimen in my collection (they put out literally tons of fruit). I have really hot summers in the East San Gabriel Valley, so watering is a must.

    Best wishes.

  7. [...] than to extend its life as an infused spirit. Since California is well known for its high-quality, fruitful bounty, it stands to reason that the Golden State’s master mixologists should be able to benefit and [...]

  8. Nick on March 20, 2012 at 10:17 pm

    Great article! I had my first zapote today and decided to do some googling to learn more. Your article was just what I needed to help cement the information into my noggin. Thanks!

  9. Kim on April 19, 2012 at 10:34 pm

    Hello Sapote people,
    I am interested in buying mature white Sapote and Santa Cruz Sapote. I hope some one can sell it to me. Thanks.
    Kim

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