FOOD / Moments of perfect ripeness

AS AN evil blizzard developed up north, I spent last week in Puerto Rico, la isla de encanto as the locals call it - the island of enchantment. It is indeed beautiful, and I first went there about 35 years ago. I had been to Cuba before, and been gastronomically awakened by the experience, but this was my first prolonged contact with that branch of Hispanic cooking which is represented by the merging of old country techniques, potent African influences and New World raw materials.

The Caribbean, of course, is strewn with remnants of empire, and each island faithfully reflects that heritage. The French had Haiti and keep Martinique and Guadaloupe; the Dutch, English and Spanish divide the rest, while (gastronomically) the southern part of the archipelago added a strong whiff of Indian. In all the islands, the inhabitants had to adapt their cooking to fit the clime and ingredients.

The first miracle of my foray into Iberian America was the rediscovery of bread, specifically the wonderful (mainly Cuban) pan de agua, the local baguette, crusty and emphatic in flavour. I quickly learnt to love and admire the bife encebollado, or steak and onions, the lunchtime staple for most islanders, as well as the Puerto Rican asopao, a rich Galician broth with rice powerfully flavoured with fresh coriander.

But what astonished me was the island's fruit, which at that time hardly figured at all in the cuisine, save as fresh fruit, eaten separately. Now it has entered the mainstream.

Our first house in Puerto Rico had a garden of perhaps an acre. An amiable old man tended it desultorily so that it was not totally overrun, for in that semi-tropical Garden of Eden, basking in the trade winds and amply watered, the problem was to control nature's fertility, not to enhance it. Our driveway, barely 50 yards long, featured four majestic avocado trees which, in fruit, would have sustained all the restaurants in London. Alas, we could never get through more than a dozen a day, even in those weeks when we ate little else.

It was in Puerto Rico that I learnt that juice from an orange you pick yourself bears no relation to juice from an orange picked commercially and sent, refrigerated and bruised, God knows how many thousands of miles. Did I wish to drink the local rum (some of which is as fine as old cognac)? I had only to reach out for a lime or a lemon. We had our own grapefuit and pineapples, each of several varieties. It was simply a matter of learning to eat fruit absolutely fresh and picked at the moment of perfect ripeness.

As for bananas, of which we had a dozen varieties spreading their giant leaves and swollen purple reproductive organs down the slope, I became literally addicted to the baby apple-banana; the giant plantain, fried and peppered, became our staple starch.

Nor is this all. We had quince, four or five kinds of mango, acerolas and many other fruits far more exotic. The huge breadfruit, like its root counterpart, manioc, was just about the only fruit we resisted.

It was interesting to see the use made of this fertility at my resort on the island's east coast. There a French chef had set up shop; and there he, like so many before him, had adapted his cooking to this huge variety of fruity sweetness and tartness. Asked to cook a large fish, one day it came basking in a mango sauce, the next, wrapped in a banana leaf and baked in fruit punch.

Underlying all these exotic flavours, however, was a certain Franco-Hispanic serenity: of things straightforwardly cooked but always with an accent of spice, permeated by peppers or allspice, occasionally scented with clove or coriander. Rice came with garlic and wisps of coriander; the vinegars were stuffed with herbs.

Paradise indeed, but for one thing I remembered well from my earlier stay: that wine was hugely expensive. But though the prices had not gone down (after all, wine has to be imported, and kept in an unfavourable climate) the variety had increased enormously. How well a potent rioja went with fruit-scented beef] How delectable a gewurztraminer with sweet crabs] No wonder the world's population is shifting towards the sun.

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