We all need a break from politics and wars and COVID-19 so let’s tackle something light today. Some time last month I was with my daughters swimming when suddenly we were all startled by a loud noise of something that had dropped, like a little bomb, into the water.
It was a santol.
When the pool was being constructed no one ever thought about considering the implications of the overhanging santol tree. Through the years, it would fruit, sparingly. This year it’s been different, not only for the santol but for several fruit trees in our garden, all dating back to the 1980s and 1990s when my mother went on a frenzied planting of fruit trees: caimito (star apple), duhat, atis, dalandan, guava, makopa, tiesa, and santol.
I shouldn’t give my mother all the credit. The atis, I remember, came as a gift. Some of the trees grew out of the strangest places, leading me to suspect that nature, including birds and bats, gave some help.
But the santol was definitely my mother’s, a Bangkok variety that produced huge sweet fruits.
All through the summer we had more fruits than usual. The makopa was the most amazing, the night’s silence interrupted by fruits falling on the roof. The next morning we would find the yard strewn with the red fruits, lovely for photographs but a pain having to sweep them up.
The fruit isn’t too popular. I tried dehydrating them and again would get a short window period where it’s just the right balance of astringency and sweetness and then it would turn very sour. I gave samples of the makopa “tsampoy” (Chinese sweet-salt delicacy) but didn’t get requests for more.
The santol story starts out similar to the makopa. After the initial swimming pool bombshell, the tree began to produce like crazy. Our nights felt like we had little duwende poltergeist playing softball on the roof and the yard and the next day the pool would be filled with santol.
The santol bonanza peaked these last two weeks and I just had to share them with neighbors and friends. In exchange, I got the santol back in dishes, the fruit perfect for sinigang, soup with the sour and sweet. Sinantol is another term, referring to the way it can be cooked with coconut milk and hot pepper and other ingredients. A neighbor sent over a dish, avoiding the pork in deference to my being vegetarian. Another friend asked for more so she could pickle them, buro, asking me if I could wait three to six months. I told her, take your time.
Fruits and fruit trees are so much part of our culture; instead of seasons we refer to fruit “times” (panahon ng). Except for the mango, which is now available all year round, most other local fruits come and go, a good way of reminding us that the best of life come, precisely, because they are never permanent. We take them as they come, mild anticipation that crescendos as first fruits of the season come, and then a tinge of sadness as they exit.
Overwhelmed these last few years by imported fruits, I take extra effort to make sure my children know the names, and the seasons, of our fruits and how they are far superior, nutritionally, to supplements. They learn about the art of opening the fruit, the etiquette around the way it’s eaten, how they’re used in cooking and their many other uses, the santol as a shade tree for example. For santol, I warn the kids about the seeds and accidental ingestion, which causes quite a few hospital admissions each year so I don’t suggest them for very young children.
The trees are important memory markers for our families and homes — who planted what and when, or who gave them. There are pets, too, buried beneath some of the trees and there are spots where there used to be trees, one avocado for example struck down by lightning.
With fruit trees so useful in many ways, I was aghast to find that one of my daughters found out, only this year, that her subdivision does not allow planting of fruits and vegetables. I told her, move out if you can, that’s almost being anti-Filipino.
Ask your subdivision, or your landlord, if they allow fruits and vegetables. If they don’t, gently argue your way. Tell them about the trees of our times and our loved ones and ask, “How can you bar us from planting new memories with our children?”
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