South Florida's exotic fruit tour: Savoring carambola, mamey, sapodilla, jackfruit, litchi, pomelos

Chocolate pudding fruit: The name sounded promising. And the mushy brown flesh did somewhat resemble that childhood snack. But when I asked Roger Blanco, my guide at Fruit and Spice Park near Homestead, Fla., whether the fruit really tasted like chocolate, he shook his head regretfully. "Not that much," he said.

I took a bite. Roger was right. Chocolate pudding fruit, or black sapote, is mildly sweet, but I couldn't detect any chocolate flavor.

Everyone knows that Florida grows fruit: It produces about 70 percent of U.S. oranges and grapefruit, according to the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. But growers here in the Redland agricultural area near Homestead also cultivate smaller quantities of less-well-known fruits, some of which don't grow anywhere else in the continental United States: carambola (star fruit), mamey, sapodilla, jackfruit, litchi and many others.

The Redland area - named for its red clay - is "a little climatic jewel" that stretches between the Everglades and Biscayne Bay, says Chris Rollins, who has been director of Fruit and Spice Park for 30 years.

Browsing the park's Web site on a gray November day, I'd had visions of sipping fresh-squeezed juice in the sunshine and decided to make a trip to the Redland area the next time I was in Miami. So on a 75-degree day in mid-January, my husband and I headed to the Redlands, making a warm-up stop first at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables.

Inside the 'edible garden'

The 83-acre garden's walking paths wind among lakes, tropical flowers, palm trees and other plants. But our destination was a small greenhouse at one end of the park. The Whitman Tropical Fruit Pavilion houses a display of fruit species from around the world - mangosteen, durian, rambutan and many others - with informative signs describing their origins.

Without a guide, though, it was hard to find the fruit on the mostly bare trees and bushes. (This was our first clue that perhaps January was not the best time to take a tropical fruit tour, even in South Florida.)

Luckily, the outdoor "edible garden" next door proved more accessible. The Fairchild runs a farm in the Redland area that houses an extensive seed collection and hosts fruit research and public education programs. The farm also supplies the raw materials for two weekend-only smoothie bars, one at the farm and one at the main garden. Taylor Carman, the helpful smoothiemaker manning the bar, showed us around the small outdoor garden and gave us a few tastes of in-season fruit there: a super-sweet, cinnamony sapodilla and a bright yellow canistel (also called eggfruit).

Half an hour later, we found ourselves making a quick transition from the strip malls and gas stations of suburban Miami to acres of avocado orchards. In the middle of them sits Fruit and Spice Park, on 37 acres of land purchased by Miami-Dade County in 1944 to build an educational botanical garden.

The park "is really a reflection of the community," Rollins says. "The very first European inhabitants here, around 1900, the first thing they did was plant guavas, mangos, avocados."

Today, avocados are the biggest commercial crop grown nearby, covering nearly 8,000 acres, according to Rollins. Growers also produce smaller numbers of longan, litchi, sapodilla, mamey, star fruit and other exotic tropical fruits, which they ship to specialty markets, resort chefs and ethnic grocery stores across the country.

Fruit and Spice Park displays all those locally grown crops, and much more - more than 500 types of fruit and spice plants from all parts of the tropics, including 150 varieties of mango and 70 types of bananas. The park gets visitors from around the world - many of them immigrants who have settled in the Miami area - and "in the summertime, we can tell where someone's from by the mango they ask for," Rollins says.

We took the hour-long tram tour included with admission, and our energetic guide, Roger, drove the packed tram on a leisurely loop around the park, stopping every few minutes to snap off a leaf or a fruit and hand it around for inspection, along with a corny joke or two. (Guanabana tea calms you down, he says. "That's what my grandmother gave to me, and look at me now.")

A sampling tray in the park's gift shop provided a curated taste of what was in season. We tried the black sapote, another sapodilla, some local avocado, a small and somewhat bland banana, and a crisp, tangy starfruit. Some of the fruit was delicious, some just interesting. I made a mental note to come back in the summer, when the mangoes are in season.

The great shake down

After whetting our appetites with the sampling tray, we were ready for something more substantial. Something like milkshakes. Ten minutes down the road, we found Robert Is Here, a mega-size fruit stand famous for its fresh-fruit shakes that has been run by the same family for 50 years. Robert Moehling started the stand when he was 7 years old. Today it sells local and imported fruit, as well as produce grown on the family farm.

Taking advantage of a tourist-heavy location on the edge of the Everglades, it has also expanded to include a petting zoo, a playground and, on the day we were there, live music. The place was hopping, so during the 20-minute wait for our milkshakes (sapodilla-Key lime for me, sapodilla-banana for my husband) we shopped for fruit to take back as a present for our hosts. At the checkout counter, I was pleased to find that Robert was, in fact, there (I recognized him from his photo on the stand's Web site), weighing and bagging customers' purchases and dispensing advice. "If we have it out, it's good," he said, when I asked how to tell whether the pomelos I had in hand were ripe.

The next afternoon, we made one last fruit-related pit stop. El Palacio de los Jugos (the Palace of Juices), a market-style Cuban restaurant conveniently located a 10-minute drive from Miami International Airport, offers food stalls serving Cuban sandwiches and heaping plates of food, along with $2 fresh-squeezed juices. I wasn't looking forward to going back to winter, but armed with mango juice and a guava pastry, I could at least be fortified for the trip.