A short account of the Sapota Mamey

In my mind, no other fruit comes close to challenging the mango as the king of fruits, except maybe for the Mamey. The unassuming brown fruit hides a glorious orange interior, and a taste that completely overwhelms your senses. You want to eat more, but you can’t because that one morsel has rendered you completely content in one lightning quick stroke of flavour.

Botanically speaking, the Mamey is Pouteria sapota, a tree that grows upto 30 m. The tree is native to meso-america, and can be found from Southern Mexico to Nicaragua, growing in the evergreen high forests. The leaves are long and oval, arranged together in a bunch, and which is why it gets the common name Sapote Mamey, deriving from the Nahuatl (zapotl = fruit with bone; mama = hands). It belongs to the Sapota family; but it is a sort of hypersapota, an deep orange wonder fruit that takes the essence of a sapota and turns the volume to eleven and beyond.

The shade of orange itself took my breath away, let alone the taste. The old name for Sapota Mamey was Tezontzapotl, which means the fruit that has the colour of the tezontli stones. And tezontli is a porous red volcanic rock that is commonly used for construction around these parts. This name has much more resonance than the name it is currently known by; it is very properly a lava red volcanic fruit.  This was the name with which Francisco Hernandez described the plant in his book, Historia de las plantas de Nueva España, one of the first Spanish explorations of Mexican natural history in 1571-76. Hernandez, though noting that the plant is ‘mediante agradable, pero no saludable del todo’ (sort of agreeable, but not healthy for all), mostly emphasises that the seed can be used to make an oil for colouring wood and as hair oil. I guess he didn’t like the taste very much. Come to think of it, no one here quite shares my enthusiasm for this fruit, they look at me somewhat bemused, because well, a Sapota Mamey is interesting but not really anything to rave about. But to my unaccustomed tongue, the Mamey provokes an unexpected excitement.

Another early natural history writer, Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes (1478-1557) somewhat shared my opinion. He wrote, in what is possibly the first description of the Sapota Mamey by an European in a book called “La historia general y natural de las Indias’,

“La fruta de este arbol esta mejor que hay en la española; es de muy buen sabor.” (My transcription, may have errors)

This translates as “the fruit of this tree is the best there is in Española (including, of course includes las Indias or New Spain). I was just going to quote that bit, but I guess I might as well translate the whole section (or more honestly, get the whole thing translated [Thanks a ton! D])

The mamey is one of the most beautiful trees you can see in the world because they are big trees with a lot of branches and beautiful leaves, with a green canopy and they are as big as the Nogales in Spain, although the branches do not spread as wide. The leaf is the size of the Nogal, and it has a division: one side is greener than the other, and is thicker than the Nogal. It is as long as a palm (of the hand) and the width is like this figure:

The fruit of the tree is the best there is in Española. It has very good flavour and it gives out very round fruits and others not so round. They all drop down around the tree and they are as thick as a fist and a half or like a fist and some smaller and it has a cortex that is the rough lion like, similar to the cortex of the ‘perazas’ but harder and thicker. Some of them have a hole or two or three together but [it is] different in the middle of the fruit, like seeds covered with a very thin cloth. The seeds have the colour of a hazelnut. …[Could not make out what the next 2 sentences means].

As I’ve said, the fine cloth like [structure] that goes around the cortex, the fleshy lime coloured [thing] and it tastes like peaches but is a better flavour, except it is not as juicy as the peach nor does it smell the same. I cut a slice for those who don’t know what it is like to see the fruit and put it on a plate in slices. It tasted like the membrillos of valencia, it was very good, even though it did not taste so sugary. This fleshy but between the fruit and the seed is as thick as a thumb or little bit less in the bigger ones, sometimes less than half. That is why the mamey is big or small. I can tell you more particulars of the tree, but the greatness of the tree is not in the leaf or how the leaf is made, but in the flavour of the fruit and other particular things. The wood is very beautiful and thick, but it is not strong and does not last as long as other woods in buildings.

You can access the whole book here, thanks to the magic of the internet, but also through the tireless efforts of the people behind The Biodiversity Heritage Library. That site is a modern Library of Alexandria. I use it on almost a daily basis, in my, um day job, and I cannot praise it enough. Also check out their flickr page. But I digress.

I will follow in Oviedo’s steps and cut open a mamey for those who don’t know what it is like to see the fruit.

I’d been fascinated by the seed itself for a while, I have a few seeds collected, strategically placed in various flower vases, waiting for inspiration to strike, so I can do something with them, but it never occurred to me to break it open. And then one day, driven by idle curiosity or a crack in the seed, I broke the seed. And lo, the kernel, not as orange as the flesh of the fruit, a pale salmon coloured kernel. Immediately I wondered if it was edible. I asked around, but nobody knew. Of course the internet knew, the internet knows all things. Some communities use the kernel to make a sort of tamale, called Pixtamales. But it is not easy to prepare: one has to boil, smoke and cut it in strips. I think it is not easy to prepare these seed kernels because of possible toxicity.

Here’s a quote from a website dedicated to the Sapota Mamey regarding it’s putative toxicity

“Rural folk in the Dominican Republic have some doubt of the wholesomeness of mamey flesh. In the Description and History of Vegetable Substances Used in the Arts and Domestic Economy, published in London in 1829, it is stated: “To people with weak stomachs, it is said to be more delicious than healthful.” The Bahamian practice of soaking the pulp in salted water may be a safety precaution inasmuch as bitterness is not only disliked but distrusted. The old Jamaican custom of steeping in wine might also be considered a safeguard. Kennard and Winters observe that, in Puerto Rico, “Although the fruit is widely eaten, it is recommended that only moderate amounts be consumed.” A former Spanish professor at the University of Miami related that, when he was about 19 in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, he ate half of a large mamey from a tree in his home yard, after peeling and scraping off the rag but not removing any adherent seed-covering. Then he ate the pulp of one star apple. An hour later, he had stomach cramps and, later, his abdomen was reddened and oddly reticulated. He attributed this reaction to the mamey and was convinced there was “something poisonous about it.” Morris et al. (1952) commented that, while the delicious mamey “has formed part of the diet of the inhabitants of the Caribbean Islands for many generations, it is well known that this fruit produces discomfort, especially in the digestive system, in some persons.” They reported also that “a concentrated extract of the fresh fruit” proved fatally toxic to guinea pigs, and was also found poisonous to dogs and cats. The extract was made from the edible portion only. The authors likened the mamey to the akee (Blighia sapida), q.v., as a human hazard, and Djerassi, et al., aver that “reports of poisoning in humans are known.”

But it’s not poisonous, it’s so full flavoured, that it immediately arouses suspicions. There must be something wrong with it. Indeed every attribute of the plant immediately stakes it as a fruit of the tropics. Not very easy to domesticate, a tree that cannot tolerate the cold, and a fruit that unsettles both with its taste and its colour. There could not be a better poster child of the tropics.


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