The Feast of the Senses is the biggest shindig in the tropical Australia fruit world. It takes place on the Cassowary Coast, a rainy region just south of Cairns. The sleepy green hills hide hundreds of rare and exotic fruits tucked in and around rolling fields of sugarcane and banana farms. We had a good hunch that there would be durian there.
The Feast of the Senses is an annual 10 day event designed to showcase the bounty of tropical fruit in the region. There are farm tours, gourmet dinners, exotic fruit tastings and – only in ex-British colony – a proper tropical high tea.
For most of the events, you need to purchase a ticket in advance. But the highlight of the festival is the Banana Market Day, a street fair sponsored by the local banana group that is a collection of tropical fruity goodness.
The market takes place in Innisfail, a small town on the banks of the Johnstone River in the heart of banana country. When Rob arrived in Australia before me (back in August) he lived in Innisfail for awhile looking for work on the fruit farms. It’s a cute little place, lined with covered shops and a quirky sense of architecture. The few tourism pamphlets I picked up at the library suggested a town walk to explore the city’s 1920’s-style art deco buildings.
Rob and I left Cairns for the festival early, trying to beat the heat. It was a pointless attempt, as by 9 AM the tropical sun was hot and steamy enough to boil rice. At least, that’s how it felt. A large chunk of the downtown was closed off, guarded by a truck with a huge banana painted on the side. The entree fee was only $2, which shocked me considering how expensive everything else is here in Australia. I think the sticker alone might be worth $2 here!
The festival was laid out on four connecting streets with a stage on each end, all centered around the fruit tasting and demonstration tent. We’d arrived just in time to catch the Rainforest Bounty talk about local native fruits, but we couldn’t find the right stage. The map we’d been given on entry gave two different names for the main stage, and none of the volunteers at the entry seemed to know where it was. By the time we wandered each of the four streets, the talk was over.
I was a little bummed, as obscure edible fruit is kinda my thing. At this point I’m pretty familiar with most of the Asian fruits, and I was excited to get a look at some of Australia’s native bounty – things like Davidson Plums, Lilli Pillis, Noni, Finger Limes, Herbert River Cherries, and Blue Quandongs. The stuff that was here before durian showed up and was just better.
Native Innisfail Fruit
I wasn’t disappointed. Later in the afternoon I found the table for Rainforest Bounty Farm, a company specializing in native fruits. A tiny waxy fruit called the Lemon Aspen particularly caught my attention. It’s in the citrus family, and is theorized to be a very primitive version of a lemon from back when Australia was part of a single continent with Asia. It might be a missing link, like a fruit version of Lucy – how cool is that?
But my favorite of the native fruits was the Davidson Plum.
Not that I really liked the taste – it was so sour it made my eyes squinch and my tongue go dry — but because the color is an amazing, brilliant magenta. I’m a sucker for anything pink and purple, especially when it’s purpley-pink.
Now if only I could find a purple durian. Maybe Durio Purpureus would fit the bill, if anyone can ever find it again.
Chupa-chupa or Mattisia
The Durian Tasting
The only durian fruit to be found was at the Tasting and Demonstration Tent.
Back in the 1980’s, members of the Australian Rare Fruit Council scoured the world and brought back some pretty obscure stuff, a lot of which was on display. Some of the fruits I’d never even heard of, like Tampoi, and a few I’d heard of but never seen, like the mangosteen relative Garcinia cambogia and the South American chupa-chupa, in the photo above.
Red and yellow rambutans
Everywhere was crowded, but the epicenter of the swarm was the Tasting Table, where two volunteers sliced and diced jackfruits, rollinias, soursops, papayas, chupa-chupa, and dragonfruits in a race against the horde of hungry and curious tasters. It took a bit of patience and polite elbowing just to get close enough for a picture.
There were so many people, that at first I didn’t even notice durian expert David Chandlee standing behind the samples in food gloves.
To be honest, the durians looked pretty rough. The stems were mangled and dry, the shells yellowed. Later in the afternoon the volunteers cracked one open and divvied it out as a sample.
It tasted sour, with the unpleasant alcoholic bite that accompanies a durian that has been too long off the tree.
I learned from David that this year the durians had been brought down from the Daintree, a region north of Cairns. Some were even frozen!
There simply weren’t enough available locally, due to a massively destructive cyclone that swept through in 2011, taking the majority of durian and other fruit trees with it. So although I know for a fact there are hundreds of durian trees around, most are still too young or too damaged to produce fruit.
Otherwise we might have seen some really exciting durians. David introduced us to Kerry MacAvoy, a longtime durian fan who traveled through Borneo collecting rare durians. She was selling tropical fruit tree seedlings, including a baby Durio testudinarum (kura-kura).
Rob and I had such a hard time finding this one in Borneo – maybe we should have just come to Australia!
This little guy knows what’s good.
I’d been under the impression that Oblongus was inedible, but there it was, labeled with a photo showing it’s beautiful brilliant orange-red flesh. It looked almost, but not quite, like Durio kutejensis.
David explained that back in the 1990’s he’d taken the leaves of this tree to the Durian Master himself, Dr. Kostermans, and had them verified as Durio oblongus. So it’s for real. I’m going to have to do some reading and also flip back through my photos. It could very well be that Rob and I ate a Durio oblongus and mis-identified it as Durio kutejensis. Exciting stuff.
At the end of the festival, the fruit was auctioned off to eager and competitive fruit lovers. Each of the durians sold for $20-30. Although it was still tempting, Rob and I chose to save our money for fresher stuff. We’ve currently got a good supply of pretty amazing and special durian, and we can afford to be snobby. I’m actually really excited to share the details of these durians with you, so stay tuned for the next post!