Twenty-eight years ago, Digby and his wife drove through Cape Tribulation in Daintree National Forest on their way to the Northern Territory. They fell in love with the area, and twenty-five years ago, they purchased nine acres of land and began the Cape Trib Exotic Fruit Farm. Five of the acres they purchased had been cleared for cattle and abandoned; the remaining four acres were untouched rainforest. Though they had never grown fruit trees before, the couple used the cleared land to grow fruit trees from tropical areas around the world, including the Amazon, Southeast Asia, and the Caribbean, in addition to native Australian fruits. We were lucky enough to visit the Cape Trib Exotic Fruit Farm to taste some of the delicious, organic fruit and hear a bit of Digby’s history as a fruit farmer.
One of the first steps was for Digby to identify five fruits that he could grow commercially. These included breadfruit, salak, mangosteen, rambutan, and durian. Mangosteen, which we tasted, has been the best survivor and is the main commercial crop on the farm, though Digby laughed when he told us the mangosteen had decided not to flower this year. There are over 150 species of fruit trees growing on Digby’s farm. Because it is an organic farm, it would be impossible to grow just one type of fruit; there needs to be diversity to balance the ecology of the farm. Organic fruit-growing is a lifestyle, not a marketable profession, and there are numerous pests that Digby has had to deal with over the years, most notably the Sulfur-crested Cockatoos that pick great amounts of fruit off the trees.
In 1997, Digby began offering fruit tastings on the farm. There are between ten and fifty types of fruit in season at any time of the year, so there is always something to offer guests. During our visit, we got to taste West Indian limes, (which he squeezed into water for us to drink), rambutan, durian, salak, Davidson’s plum, and mangosteen. On the farm, Digby sells processed products such as dried fruit and jam, and we tasted some Davidson’s plum jam as well. He also sells seeds and nursery plants for those who want to grow their own fruit trees. After years of the farming lifestyle, Digby is ready to retire, so the farm is currently on the market. He is offering a twelve-month mentorship to whoever chooses to buy the farm so that the new owners continue what he has begun. Below is an account and photos of the fruits that we tasted.
The first fruit that we sampled was rambutan. Rambu means “hairy thing” and utan means “of the jungle,” and when Digby was traveling in Southeast Asia it took him a while to figure out why people kept talking about rambutan when it wasn’t in season. They were talking about him. In any case, rambutan is a cousin to lychee, though it is sweeter, and cockatoos, other birds, and fruit bats all love it. A tree produces about half a ton of fruit each year and it is hard to keep the animals away. The fruit is also hard to grow organically because insects will build nests within the prickly skin of the fruit. (They don’t disturb the fruit itself; it’s more of a cosmetic problem.) When you peel back the hairy skin, you find the grape-like fruit inside.
After tasting such a delicious fruit, we of course had to try something weird: durian. Famous for its awful odor and banned in hotel rooms and some public places throughout Asia, this fruit disturbed customers so much when Digby cut into it that he began preparing it in advance and freezing it, then giving small bits for people to sample. The fruit itself is incredibly spiny, but elephants eat them whole by rolling them on the ground until they are covered with leaves. When the durian is frozen, about 90% of the smell is gone, but we could still smell it, and boy, could we taste it. Digby said that durian is a “fruit that tastes like heaven but smells like hell,” but I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it tastes like heaven. His second comment was more accurate: “It’s like eating a strawberry blancmange on an overflowing toilet.” He described it as a garlic/onion cheesecake, and that’s just what it was. It took me hours to get the taste out of my mouth. I’m glad I tried it once, but I’m not so sure I would ever try it again.
I was ready to eat something else to cleanse my taste buds, and salak was the next fruit on the list. Commercially grown in Bali, salak is the fruit of a type of palm tree and is also known as the “snake-skin fruit” for its scaly skin which peels away easily. Inside were three pieces of fruit, but only one piece had a seed. This is because the flower of the salak tree is pollinated by a beetle that doesn’t exist in Australia, though rainfall can pollinate flowers to an extent. The tree, which Digby later showed us, has two to three inch needles growing along its trunk—more terrifying than any snake skin I’ve ever seen.
We then sampled the native Davidson’s plum (which I don’t have a picture of. It looks just like a plum.). This tree is endangered; it is one of thirty rare and endangered rainforest plants that helped the region get its World Heritage Area protection. Though it looks like a plum, it doesn’t taste like one; the fruit is very sour. We sampled tiny bites, but the fruit is usually eaten when cooked with an equal amount (in weight) of sugar. So then we tried the Davidson’s plum jam, which was, of course, delicious.
The last fruit that we tried was the mangosteen, the one crop that Digby grows commercially. From Thailand, this fruit tree grows seven to twelve years before it first produces fruit. Inside the skin, the mangosteen is split up into many small segments; it almost looked like a clove of garlic, but thank goodness, it did not taste like one. Even despite the several fruits we tried since the durian, I still had the strange taste in my mouth, so I licked a spoonful of Davidson’s plum jam before we left.