Though potentially it doesn't feel like it in your part of the country (I write as I stare at the slowly melting slush outside my window), spring really is just around the corner. The shift in seasons marks something different for everyone: planning for outdoor festivals, the start of baseball season, the return of chilled wine on the patio.
But for Shayn Prapaisilp, the international grocery buyer at Global Foods Market in St. Louis, the return of spring means that he can share the rare produce he and his team sourced over the winter with consumers in their stores. According to Prapaisilp, while he and his team have relationships with wholesalers in all the major port cities in the United States, buying rare produce "works more like an auction than a long-term plan."
"It would be great to say every February we will have an abundance of Pineberries — those pink strawberries that are highly sought after — but the reality is that we don't know how many we will be able to get our hands on, so we always plan for the rarest items for the season and hope we can get as much as possible," he said.
For those looking to expand the kinds of produce they keep in their kitchen, Prapaisilp said the best place to start is your local international markets.
"Whether your city offers Latin, Asian or African markets, seek them out and don't be afraid to ask the employees questions while you're there," he said. "These people are provided with a wealth of knowledge and are eager to share their insights – especially if it's a market that speaks to their own culture. If you aren't sure how to find an international grocery store in your own city, start in areas where diverse populations have settled like Chinatown."
Usually, he said, markets will highlight unique offerings in displays near the entrance, so start there and check back often.
"What's available today, could be completely different two days later," he said. "I would suggest asking where rare and specialty produce items are kept to head straight to the rare items."
What rare items should you keep an eye out for this spring? Here are five of Prapaisilp's picks:
According to Prapaisilp, the Black Sapote is also known as the "chocolate pudding fruit," due to its brown color and sweet, custardy interior. The fruit is native to Mexico, Central America and Colombia. There are also notes of other dessert-like flavors, like caramel, vanilla and banana.
Alright — so unlike everything else on this list, green almonds aren't a fruit, though they have definite fruity undertones. Only available for a short time in the spring, green almonds, as the name suggests, are unripe almonds. They have a fuzzy exterior like a peach, a jelly-like interior and a delicate, nutty flavor with hints of peach and botanicals.
"As almonds ripen, the green fuzz withers away and the inner seed hardens into what we picture as a traditional almond," Prapaisilp said. "Green almonds have a narrow window for harvesting and must be handpicked, which is why they are a seasonal delicacy."
"The mamey is like an avocado in the way it is sliced and eaten. It has that same creamy, rich consistency, but it's versatile and adds tropical flavors to smoothies, juices, baked goods, and serves as a great meat substitute," explains Prapaisilp.
Popular in Southern Mexico and other tropical regions, the mamey sapote is an orange-fleshed fruit with flavor notes including apricot, sweet potato, nuts and spices.
Greengages, or green plums, were first popularized in Iran before eventually gaining traction in more temperate European countries. Despite being a little high-maintenance — they're fickle when it comes to temperature and have to be hand-picked because they are so delicate — green plums are considered "the finest dessert plums."
"Green plums are the first of our rare produce items to sell out due to their scarcity and one-of-a-kind flavor that can only be described as a syrupy sweetness balanced out with a slight acidity," Prapaislip said. "Many of our customers enjoy eating green plums raw with salt."
Native to the Andes Mountain range, the cherimoya is a green, scaly fruit with flavor notes similar to banana, pineapple, mango, peach and strawberry.
"This fruit truly offers a taste of the topics," Prapaislip said. "It is commonly referred to as the 'custard apple' because of all the sweetness. Try a cherimoya and you'll understand why Mark Twain called the fruit 'the most delicious known to man.'"