GO FORTH AND MULTIPLY, MY LITTLE PEPINO © Duncan Graham 2007
Never judge a person or a plant by their name. The same goes for their relatives.
If you have such prejudices it's unlikely you'd encounter petite Pepino because some members of her family (with a name like Pepino she has to be female), sound a mite distasteful.
There's Cannibal's Tomato, Fruta-de-Lobo (which translates as Fruit of Wolves and is doubtless a howling success among canines), and Ashwagandha. This, as we all know, is Sanskrit for Horse's Smell
However not all the Solanaceae cousins are sour and malodorous: Nipple Fruit should be tasty indeed, and I have to report Pepino is well worth a suck, more like a melon with substance and style, squishy but not so watery.
She may also be just the fruit they're looking for in Batu, East Java where an innovative farmer thinks he may have found a sleeping princess to waken the local economy.
As a loyal reader of the Java Brew pages you may recall a story last December that told of the demise of apple growing in Batu.
Apples have been the icon industry of the hill town 20 kilometers outside Malang for more than 70 years. No longer. The old high-maintenance Dutch-planted varieties are now considered too tough for modern tastes, and Chinese imports are undercutting the local market.
So farmers like Suroto, 45, have been bulldozing their trees and looking for alternative crops. Many have gone into the flower trade, selling exotics for suburban gardens and blooms to florists – but they really want something edible to replace apples.
"Competition is acute and we need to diversify," Suroto said. "I bought Euphorbia (also known as Spurge and Poinsettia) from Thailand, but these flowers are now popular and being widely grown.
"So I did some research on the Internet and found the South American fruit Pepino. (See sidebar).
"On a trip to Bogor (in West Java) to look at the horticultural industry I got some seeds. These have taken well though it's better propagated from cuttings.
"I hope that we can now get a new product onto the market."
Suroto has about 2,000 plants growing in plastic sleeves. Although only four months old they're already producing. Together with some colleagues he's trying to get other farmers to take an interest.
He said they'd had no help from the Department of Agriculture. "We're waiting to see what happens," said an officer. "Later we may get involved."
"Farmers are notoriously conservative, but not all of us sit around when there are downturns in horticulture, waiting for something to fall from heaven," Suroto said.
"I was attracted to Pepino because of its medicinal properties. I know the markets today are looking for safe and healthy food, preferably organic, so we have to follow the trends.
"The people of Batu are self-reliant. We're always thinking of how we can improve. This is an ideal location for Pepino."
Maybe – it's also a top spot for apples and with good management can yield two crops a year. But farmers' failure to upgrade with new varieties and market the product properly has led to its demise. Climate, soil and green fingers aren't enough – packaging and promotion are also critical in the fickle fruit industry.
The current retail price for Pepinos puts them on a par with the local Manalagi apples – about Rp 15,000 (US $1.60) a kilo. Although the bushes are hardy, the fruit is delicate and doesn't travel well. It's unlikely to become an export product unless great care is taken with sorting and packing.
The way that crops are grown in Batu is extraordinary and has created a fascinating environment that delights. Houses have been built close together on slopes and the town is more like a big kampong than an East Java village.
Batu is about 600 metres above sea level and it's wise to always have a brolly handy.
It seems that if you aren't growing something exotic, you're not a native. There are so many pot plants on the ground, squatting on racks, hanging from metal and bamboo frames that every square centimeter is covered in color.
The boom in blooms has led many to use footpaths and kerbsides to propagate. Banners promoting tobacco pollute streetscapes elsewhere in Indonesia. Batu is one great nursery and has no need to advertise toxins.
Backyard plots are only a few square meters but often hold 20 or more different varieties. There's little free room. City shops selling fragile goods often carry signs: If you break, you buy. Should Batu continue to carpet the concrete with green there'll soon be a need for a similar warning: Trample pots – and pay.
"We have to promote tourism here, and I hope that Pepino will add to the attractions," said Suroto. "I want Batu to become world famous not just for its flowers, but also its fruits.
"I think we can make this a new Garden of Eden."
A FRUIT FOR ALL SEASONS AND REASONS
Pepino, also known as Melon Pear, is an evergreen native of the South American Andes. It's cultivated in Chile, Columbia and Peru but little known elsewhere.
It's a bush and grows up to a meter or more, fruiting all year round. The little flowers are a pretty purple. Frosts (not an issue in Batu) can be a problem, along with aphids. Some texts claim it looks like a tomato vine, but that takes imagination.
Farmers in Western Australia and New Zealand have been experimenting with commercial crops, but so far the plantings in Batu appear to be the only substantial ones in Indonesia.
The fruit is about the size of a cricket ball, or for heathens, a baseball ball. The skin is yellow when ripe with vertical tiger stripes. It's easy to peel and handle – a palm-size melon.
The tiny pips are in the center, so the disgusting seed-spitting ritual employed by melon-munchers is unnecessary. So is the need to have a towel to catch the drips and sprays provoked when sucking a slice.
All hustlers claim special qualities for any new product on the markets, and it’s the same with the pushers of Pepinos. The fruits are supposed to reduce blood pressure, help the kidneys and prevent stroke. They are certainly high in Vitamin C.
As with all foods with real or imagined medicinal properties, you need to consume a lot to get the benefits. Best to do your own research.
(First published 2 April 07 in The Jakarta Post)