Wishing for local fruit? Think really, really local

If you follow the local food scene, you probably know that, while our vegetable supply is steady and varied, our fruit options are notably more limited. We get a brief, decadent rush of strawberries in the spring, followed by a smattering of blueberries and blackberries in the early summer, a few weeks of melons, and then a trickling of figs and muscadines in the fall. Throw in some backyard green plums, peaches from central Georgia and apples from the mountains, and that’s pretty much the entirety of our fruit repertoire.

I was recently reminded of this sad circumstance when David Tanis, the celebrated chef from Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., passed through town this week to promote his new book, “Heart of the Artichoke and Other Kitchen Journeys” (Artisan, 2010). Like the famed restaurant where he works, “Artichoke” and its predecessor, “A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes,” celebrate all things seasonal and local … for California. Thanks to the nice folks at Restaurant Eugene, I was lucky enough to meet Tanis with some other Atlanta food bloggers, and as I thumbed through his gorgeous new book afterward, I was stung with envy over the generous use of almonds and cherries, apricot and oranges, avocados and pomegranates. We can’t grow those thing here!

Or can we? Common wisdom says that Georgia offers the perfect climate to kill most fruit trees: warm and humid enough to support diseases and pests, but cold enough to destroy citrus and other fruits that can resist the damp. But Robert Hamilton, aka “the Atlanta Fruit Man,” says otherwise.

“I’ve filled my yard with various experiments,” says the Spelman College computer graphics instructor who regularly teaches fruit tree classes at Oakhurst Community Garden. At his home in East Atlanta, Hamilton grows figs, persimmons, gooseberries, currants, cherries, kiwi, and “a few citrus”—including the Thomasville Citrangequat, a cold-hardy hybrid developed in Thomasville around the turn of the previous century.

“Actually, Southern Georgia was pretty big in citrus before the 1900s,” he explains. “But there were a series of cold spurts down there, a number of really harsh frosts at the early part of the century, and really a lot of those orchards were just given up.”

Now, though, as the local food movement gathers steam, there’s growing interest in re-establishing a citrus industry in Georgia—as well as expanding commercial production of native fruits such as pawpaws, persimmons and muscadines. Hamilton says he’s also been hearing buzz about establishing pomegranate production in Georgia.

“I really think that, maybe long term, pomegranates could be the thing,” he says. “They’re fairly low care as far as fruit trees are concerned. And they deal with drought well.”

But why wait for the pros? Hamilton advocates growing your own. You may not succeed with almonds or apricots, but a lot of lesser known fruits do well in metro Atlanta yards—and right now, and then again in early spring, are the right times to plant fruit trees. Some of Hamilton’s favorites include a prolific bush cherry called Nanking—“there’s enough for you and the birds and squirrels”— the native Chickasaw plum, and a beautiful evergreen called the feijoa, or pineapple guava, with camellia-like foliage, pink and red flowers with edible petals, and fruit that tastes like a combination of pineapple and guava with a hint of mint and lemon. “It makes a very good salsa,” Hamilton says.

There’s a great big world of Georgia-friendly fruits out there to be explored, Hamilton says, for the slightly adventurous. “I think a lot of people will try a fruit once, and if it’s not something they’re familiar with they tend to kind of dismiss it and put it down,” he says. But if you’re willing to try something new, perhaps in a jam or pie or cocktail, it might become your new favorite: “If you think along those terms it will really kind of open up a whole new world.”

A good way to launch your backyard orchard is to check out the second annual Fruit Tree, Vine and Berry Bush Sale to benefit the Atlanta Local Food Initiative. It will be held 9 a.m. to noon on Jan. 22 at the Atlanta Community Food Bank, 732 Joseph E. Lowery Blvd. Last year’s inventory included several varieties of apples, pears, figs, berries, and muscadines, plus pawpaws, persimmons, pomegranates, plums and hearty kiwis. The online presale begins Jan. 3. Mark the date on your calendar, and plan on seeing more local fruit on your plate in the near future.

Images: Robert Hamilton, pineapple guava flower (courtesy H. Zell).