With Mom and Dad in town, we’ve spent a lot more time cuddling kangaroos and searching futilely for crocodiles in every river, creek, or small body of water than eating durian. But we had one more orchard visit scheduled — and a really special one at that.
On their last day here in Australia, the four of us drove to Alan Zappala’s farm near Babinda for a taste of a durian species found almost nowhere else in the world – the legendary Durio macrantha. I had a hunch this fruit might just convince my parents that the durian wasn’t just actually worth eating, but something pretty darn special.
Until Cyclone Yasi wiped him clean, Alan and his father, Joe, had an orchard of over 1,000 durian trees, one of the largest durian orchard in Australia at that time. The father-son team had spent years gathering delectable varieties from Malaysia and Thailand, and their collection included Red Prawn, Musang King, and D24, among others.
It also included 15 Durio macrantha trees.
Durio macrantha is a thing of mystery. In 1981 it was discovered in Gunung Leuser National Park in Northern Sumatra by a Herman Dirk Rijkens, who was into durian in terms of food for his pet project: orangutan rehabilitation. It’s unclear if he got a seed or took a cutting, but somehow he transferred a small tree to the home of a botanist who was a rockstar in the durian world – the great AJH Kosterman.
Alan Zappala with a Macrantha fruit
For years the tree languished, alone, the sole survivor of its species. Although research teams returned to the area, another tree was never found. It was even questioned whether or not the tree really was a separate species, or just some kind of freak mutant anomaly.
Kosterman, however, was enthusiastic that he’d found the “Tree of the Future.” The tree naturally met the ideal of the commercial durian – it was small and dwarfish and produced a fruit that had no odor but a flavor and texture very similar to normal durian. Songpol’s odorless durian critics take that.
He named it Durio macrantha because of it’s unusually large flowers, deeming the tree’s anatomy to be different enough from commercial durians to warrant being labelled a new species. And as the Durian Guru of the 20th Century, nobody questioned him. This guy knew his durian.
In 1994, the Zapallas got a call from Indonesia – Kosterman was seriously ill. Fearful that the growing unrest in Indonesia might render his favorite durian into firewood, Kosterman requested to have Macrantha brought to Australia. The Zapallas scrambled to get the import papers ready and contact fellow durian grower John Marshall, who was vacationing in Bali. That was quite a task considering that in 1994 the internet and cell phones didn’t exist yet in most Western cities, and especially not in Indonesia. Seriously, how did you old folks get anything done back then?
A testament to Macrantha’s curious lack of odor: Marshall carried a ripe fruit home on the plane, as a carry on, and nobody even knew.
The tree in Bogor is still there, as well as 12 of the Zapalla’s original trees. That means there’s probably fewer than 15 Macrantha trees in the entire world. That’s pretty rare.
Considering this was the only second time they had tasted fresh durian in their entire lives, Mom and Dad were pretty darn lucky. Heck, I go seriously out of my way to look for rare durians, and I felt lucky to get a taste.
To be honest, when I finally held Kosterman’s white whale, I was a little disappointed. It just seemed so… normal. It didn’t look like any of the jungle durians I’d seen tromping around Borneo. The spike was the same. The color was the same. It looked like an average sized durian I might pick up from a market in Malaysia.
In fact, I wondered if old Kostermans might be playing a posthumous practical joke. This thing was a new species? Really…
But it was true – there was almost no odor. If I put my nose right up in the arils I could get a whiff of something deliciously durian-y. But the smell was negligible.
Even the super-duper mild durian we ate last week, a D10 from Alan, could be whiffed from the carport before opening the front door. So when I say this thing had no smell, I mean it.
Alan thought the lack of smell might make it a good introductory durian for those not already so in love they’re driven to ridiculous acts of travel or spending (ahem). Mom and Dad would be a good test – their current perspective of “ It’s really not that bad wasn’t exactly a
resounding affirmation of durian love.
At Alan’s farm we cracked open a Macrantha. In the dim lighting the pale white flesh nearly glowed. It was kind of ugly. The surface of each pod was hard and tight, with none of those lovely folds and wrinkles of the super soft and creamy. I wasn’t enthralled.
But then I took a bite. And another. It was mild, as expected, but more bitter than I had imagined possible. It had a certain milkiness to it that reminded me a lot of another famous odorless durian that I tasted last June – the Longlaplae. It seems that Songpol’s odorless durian has some competition!
What surprised me most was the texture. Although it looked a bit hard and crunchy, the flesh was actually soft and thick, sticky like almond butter left in the refrigerator. Even the waxy bit of skin surrounding the seed was a pleasant texture. For once, Rob sucked his seed clean. Now that’s saying something about a durian.
Even more surprising was that my Dad kept pace with us. After the first durian, we cracked open another and without any prompting at all he was in on another piece. And then another, and another. Mom even ate a whole piece by herself.
“Lindsay,” she said, “you can tell your readers I’ve had a breakthrough.”
Durio Macrantha had worked its magic.
After the tasting, I gave Mom and Dad a quick tour of the orchard. It was the first time they’d seen many of the tropical fruit trees that populate my life, like rambutans, longsats, cempedak, and durian. It was fun to share a little piece of my world with them, and see their enthusiastic response. Mom even posed with a durian to prove to her friends that she’d been converted.
So there it is. Durio macrantha. That’s one more durian to add to my ever-lengthening list of durian species, which is pretty exciting. I’ll be posting more technical information like I do with all the other durian species in a future post.
And best yet, my Mom and Dad like durian. Maybe next time I visit I can eat my durian ice cream in the house.