by Esme McAvoy
Life here in the mountains might be relaxed and calm but I feel like there’s so much to learn. Things that I’d never even thought to question before while living in the city, about how things grow, and when. We’re now in the height of summer and observing the countless changes it brings in garden’s plants, trees and insects.
The intense summer sunshine seems to have woken up every plant and tree we have, its warmth encouraging them to flower and produce fruits. There are hundreds of bunches of still-green mangoes hanging from the mango trees that are now the right size and only need to turn that delicious shade of sunset orange-pink. Unable to wait until they’re fully ripe, we’ve started to pick them green, peeling then grating them with a little lemon juice to give an extra crunchy, sweet-sour zing to a big bowl of salad. Stewing them with cloves, a stick of cinnamon and a good dose of Colombian brown sugar, panela, also puts them to good use, producing a thick, apple sauce-like compote that’s delicious on toast or stirred into porridge.
With many of the garden’s trees, I'm learning what they are by what fruits start to grow - or fall - from their branches. I realized one of the trees closest to the house was a cashew nut only after finding a bright-yellow fruit small as a pear drop on the grass beneath it.
The tiny fruit was ringed with bright pinks and greens but topped with the unmistakable, crescent moon form of a cashew nut.
A day later, a great momma of a cashew fruit thuds onto the grass while we’re having breakfast and we run to fetch it like the tree is raining gold. Squidgy, super sweet and dripping with juice, the fruit certainly tastes better than gold, even if it does leave a sort of waxy, squeaky layer on your teeth and gums. The fruits are spongy and brimming with juice but manage to leave your mouth completely parched, as though you’ve downed a huge glass of dry white wine. It’s a funny sensation so we’ve been getting the backpackers to try a bit of the fruit, with very mixed responses!
Curious, I do a little Wikipedia digging online to find that the ‘super-dry mouth’ syndrome is caused by the fruits sky-high tannin levels of 35%. I also find out that the fruits aren’t technically fruits at all but ‘accessory fruits’ - a part of the cashew tree’s flowers that swell up after the real fruit, (the nut part), has grown. I decide I like the thought of a fruit so chic it demands accessories... Incidentally, the nut isn’t technically a nut either, but a seed. Who knew? It turns out that the trees are native to Brazil but when the Portuguese arrived there almost 500 years ago, they took the cashew plant to their other colonies including southern India where it spread across Asia and eventually reached Africa. Nutritionally speaking, the juice of the yellow, spongy ‘accessory fruit’ that we’ve been munching has five times the vitamin C content of orange juice and is a great natural antiseptic.
At the moment the considerate tree is dropping at least one fruit a day and almost always in time for breakfast. After eating the fruits we’ve been keeping their nuts to roast a batch in a few weeks’ time. Looking at our precious hoard totaling a meagre 20 or 25 nuts, I can now appreciate why cashews are on the expensive side back home; a bag of toasted cashews I’d wolf down in minutes back in London is probably a tree’s entire harvest for the year. Oops.
The Minca summer has also boosted the rows of maracuyá passion fruit vines, their shiny green fruits now the size of giant cooking apples. The vines are dotted with large white and purple flowers that are pollinated by the biggest hornet-bee like creatures I've ever seen. Passing a sunny afternoon among the vines, I quietly watched them at work. They dive deep into the maracuyá flowers to get at the nectar, covering their backs in pollen in the process. They then fly on to the next flower where the stamens are positioned just right to gently brush the back of the hornet as it dives in again and pick up the pollen. Mother Nature's very clever indeed.
And the sun’s influence even seems to have reached the shaded coffee plants. When I first arrived in Minca back in December I was just in time to catch the tail end of the coffee-picking season, managing to harvest and roast a small quantity of beans myself. Since then the rows of coffee plants have lain dormant - until two weeks ago when they started one by one to sprout tiny white buds. Then one morning last week, I awoke at dawn to find the morning air filled with a gorgeous scent of something akin to jasmine flowers or lilies. The coffee buds had all opened at the same time, their delicate white flowers standing out against the deep-green leaves of their plants.
According to Luis the gardener, the coffee bush flowers for just two days of the year which probably explains why the plants were suddenly alive with the buzzing of all kinds of bees and wasps, each trying to capture their share of this short-lived nectar. The flowers are dotted along the length of every branch at equal intervals and at night, under the silvery glow of a full moon, the bushes resembled stout Christmas trees strung generously with fairy lights.
Yesterday I spied three green papayas the size of marrows hanging from the palm-like papaya tree. They won’t be ready for a while but thankfully a neighbour stopped by last week carrying one of the biggest ripe papayas I’ve seen from his garden to see if we wanted to buy it. For about £1.50 this bowling ball of a papaya with red flesh was ours, soft to the touch and ready to be carved up for tomorrow’s breakfast. There are definite advantages to being the only vegan in the village : )
And with all the fruit and flower action, the garden's attracting plenty of new butterflies and birds. The toucans are probably my favourite new visitors with their wet-black feathers and cartoonish rainbow beaks that look as though they’ve been coloured in by Rolf Harris with fat marker pens. Four toucans in one go is the current toucan sighting record, made by a Dutch backpacking couple while enjoying a hot chocolate in the garden. But it was a young London backpacker that managed to catch this winning toucan shot, showing the bird’s colourful beak in all its glory.