California may be home to a number of World Capitals of various agricultural products: Castroville proclaims itself the Artichoke Capital of the world, Indio the Date Capital, Yuba City the Prune Capital and Gilroy the Garlic Capital, but I don’t think California can claim to be the jackfruit capital of anywhere, as that honor belongs to the charming burg of El Llano, which is arguably the Jackfruit Capital of the solar system, with jackfruit orchards lining both sides of the highway mile after mile and stretching as far as you can see.
Sra. Elizabeth Rosales Climaco, president and CEO of El Llano’s Frutas y Legumbres Climaco, states on her website that she will deliver a minimum order of 18 metric tons of jackfruit to you each month at a price ranging from $0.60 to $0.80 USD FOB per pound,, depending on the season and the spot price of diesel fuel. Now, one cannot dispute that this is really, really world-class and that Sra. Rosales is a Major Player in the global jackfruit market.
El Llano itself is a modest and well-swept six-tope town on the Carretera Ixtapa-Mazatlan. At each of its topes you’ll find a jackfruit stand flanking both sides of the highway, tempting you with all manner of jackfruit commodities, from the obscenely huge green fruit itself to salted jackfruit chips, jackfruit juice and jackfruit bread.
Each stand is staffed by two to four generations of a family, with the eight-to-ten year olds competently collecting the cash and delivering the goods while their elders gossip or just gaze at passing motorists and foot-and-burro traffic. No matter that the stands are supported by stout tree branches instead of concrete columns, no matter that credit cards are not accepted: these are not your typical neighborhood lemonade stands, but the front end of a gigantic multinational enterprise.
But what is this jackfruit, anyway? Jackfruit, Artocarpus heterophyllus, is nothing but a giant green mulberry, which is its distant cousin, of scant commercial value other than furnishing fodder for silkworms. So, a jackfruit is a sort of a giant green mulberry on steroids. Also a cousin of the breadfruit, jackfruit is the largest tree-borne fruit bar none, attaining dimensions exceeding those of champion watermelons (more than 100 lbs. is the record). In southeast Asia its wood is used for musical instruments (especially drums), furniture and house construction. Buddhist monks use its heartwood to dye their robes a dusty brown hue. But we in the West know it mainly for its gargantuan fruit.
Since the first writing of this article, I have heard from a journalist in Kerala State, India, where Jackfruit is also grown as a cash crop. The journalist, Shree Padre, wrote that the Guiness Book of World Records evidently does not consider Kerala State to be part of the world, as it cites a 100-lb jackfruit, grown in Hawaii, as the World Record. “Small potatoes!” said Shree, because his neck of the woods, 100 kilogram jackfruits are not uncommon. To prove it, he emailed me a photo of two guys hoisting an absolutely enormous jackfruit.
Anyway, back to El Llano: sooner or later your better judgment will fail you and you will purchase a whole jackfruit (known locally as jaca) at one of those tope stands, lug it home in the trunk and then ponder how to open it. Obviously, with a knife, but top-to-bottom, across its midriff, peel it? Slice it open any which way and you immediately have an impossible mess of yellow-orange pulp, dozens of slimy acorn-sized seeds and what seems like a gallon of sticky resin with the color and consistency of rubber cement.
The goo is so tenacious that it’s used to mend cracked engine blocks and hold dentures in place; it’s sort of like nature’s very own Gorilla Glue. It’s impossible to get off your hands the same day or off anything you’ve spilled it on, like your clothing, which must be discarded or recycled as rags. Prepare to dedicate a couple of hours to the chore… unless you have someone like Moña Delgado, our Colibri chef, who deftly quarters the thing, then covers her hands with olive oil and lays into the pieces like a human Cuisinart, generating a neat heap of sweet, sticky seeds in less seven minutes flat.
Enough about the sometimes malodorus fruit (known in its post-ripe state as “stinkfruit”). Let us dismiss it as a Good Thing To Stay Away From it in its natural condition. It is a Good Idea to leave its preparation to others, just as we generally do not slaughter our own beef, pork or poultry.
Jackfruit chips are fine, though usually needing extra salt. Jackfuit juice is cloying but more palatable than wormwood. What about jackfruit bread? Well, jackfruit bread, banana bread, zucchini bread, date-nut bread or any of those moist, spongy breads made from agricultural products that people always harvest too much of, you can keep. Anyway, they’re minor members of the cake family, so they don’t even deserve to be called breads in the first place.
Jackfruit ice cream is a different matter, though, and you can buy it in a regular little ice cream shop in El Llano, one that’s not on a tope with little kids thrusting whole jackfruits through your car window. It’s called Carlos’s Jack Fruit, Nieve de Jacka, has a little bamboo awning over a tiled sidewalk, and is owned and run by Mar, a youthful-looking 38 year old woman whose parents loved the Pacific Ocean so much that they named her after it. Note the punctiousnesss of the apostrophe-S on Carlos’s sign, a grammatical nicety rarely seen used correctly in English-speaking countries, not to mention in Mexico, where “Hamburgers’ With Fries” is the norm.
Mar likes to travel through Mexico during the ice cream off-season: her sparklingly clean shop is decorated with masks and statuary from other Mexican states as far south as Oaxaca and Chiapas. Mar’s freezer holds about a dozen flavors of home-made ice cream, most having the consistency more of sherbet than, say, of Haagen-Daz.
Besides the ubiquitous jackfruit, you can take home vanilla, oreos-and-vanilla, chocolate, mandarina, strawberry (with whole strawberries), limon, butter pecan, mango (the creamiest of all and highly recommended), coconut, coffee and piña colada. Mars tightly packs the products into half-liter or one-liter Styrofoam cups and labels each with a fat Magic Marker.
Mar’s stuff isn’t cheap: it’s $80 pesos a liter. Despite the price, though, she has a pretty steady stream of customers, most of whom buy a Dixie-cup sized serving. She also sells home-made pastries, with samples on the counter.
Next time you go to El Llano, or San Blas, take along a cooler and come back with at least a couple of liters of Mar’s ice cream. And a whole jackfruit or two. If you haven’t rented a compact car, that is.