Sunshine State Brims With Edible Exotics

Stars fell on Alabama - so the song goes. They're also falling on southern Florida.

Carambolas, commonly cal- led star fruit, are dropping from trees and littering the ground here at Marc and Kiki Ellenby's exotic fruit farm, LNB Groves. And there's another star inside as well. Mr. Ellenby plucks a smallish, leathery-skinned fruit from a tree. He slices it in half to reveal a perfect star pattern formed by the dark seeds set in translucent jelly.

These may be the stars of LNB Groves, but they're not the only exotics here. The Ellenbys also grow atemoya, lychee, longan, kumquat, sapodilla, and mamey, to name a few.

If these names sound foreign now, be patient. The problem is, Ellenby explains, Americans have to be educated about these exotic fruits. But then, he adds with an air of optimism, it wasn't too long ago when you couldn't sell Americans a green apple.

This area, so devastated by Hurricane Andrew back in August 1992, is coming back not only green but also even more culturally diverse.

The growing number of relatively new immigrants to the Miami area - from the Cubans some 35 years ago to the more recent Haitians, Cambodians, and Vietnamese, to the steady influx of Indians and West Indians - has brought a bounty of culinary color to southern Florida.

The trend is rippling out to the rest of the country; it's not uncommon these days to spot exotic fruits and vegetables in supermarkets as well as ethnic food stores.

Ellenby is just one of many who have benefitted from growing interest in exotics. He picks a black sapote off the ground and punches his thumb through the tough skin to the mushy, brown flesh. ``Perfectly ripe,'' he says. ``The common name is chocolate-pudding fruit. It's good, but kind of bland. Honestly, we haven't found much of a market for it yet ... how many Americans are going to buy a fruit that looks like this?''

Ellenby's wife, Kiki, cuts a sapodilla in half and scoops out a spoonful of its yellow-brown flesh. ''Taste it,'' she offers, ``it's sort of like maple syrup poured over a pear.'' Delicious!

The Ellenbys' farm is wholesale only. At nearby ``Robert Is Here'' fruit stand, it's a different story.

Robert, who is almost always there, only admits to having a surname after some prodding. It's Moehling, he says reluctantly.

Since age 7, Mr. Moehling has been here selling produce. His father set up a stand to sell his avocados, and he made a sign from hurricane shutters that said, Robert is Here. The name stuck, and he's been here ever since.

Robert guesses there are about 150 varieties of fruits, vegetables, and condiments here at the corner of 19900 SW 344th Street in Homestead.

Under the watchful eye of Fred, his green-wing macaw, regular customers and tourists paw through the exotic produce as well as his specialty dressings, sauces, mustards, and salsas. Or they cool off with a creamy soft kiwi or key-lime ice cream.

Multinational customers pull up in cars, vans, and minibuses eager to buy his produce. Cubans come for papayas, mangoes, and sugar apples, he says, while Haitians are looking for plantains and yams. Indians, on the other hand, usually walk away with lychee, longan, and guava.

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