Not long now until the British growing season, but in the meantime it’s the 'queer gear' that’s gripped my attention.
Exotics are the specialty of several wholesalers, and frankly some imports have got me baffled – in the best possible sense.
You see, I thought I knew a thing or two about the world of fruit and veg.
But what’s a tamarillo? Kiwano? Feijoa? Babaco? Just a few of the mysteries I find scouring the Market. Customers clearly buy them, but I never see them on menus.
Trends in ingredients, explains Tom Crump, managing director of Worldwide Exotics, are often driven by high-profile chefs: "[They] are looking for something exceptional and have a lot of influence."
Exotic fruit and veg fits their bill, often with the bonus of year-round availability, so they don’t have to redesign their menus.
Have you tried finger limes? They’re another revelation. Grown in Australia, they are a wild citrus fruit known to the aborigines for centuries.
Give them a squeeze, and they ooze beautiful, juicy spheres of sharp ‘citrus caviar’. They are terrific in fizz cocktails, with seafood, and as a dessert garnish. (C & C Fruit (Pavilion) Ltd sells them).
I’m a total convert. Heston Blumenthal - eat your heart out.
Both C & C and Worldwide Exotics have the most extensive range of exotic produce. (P&I and Gilgrove are also worth checking out).
All the way from... Essex
At the familiar end of the spectrum, there are mange tout, sugar snaps, French beans, mangoes, chillies, passion fruit and the like.
But you may also find cactus pears, physalis, tamarind, galangal, lotus root, jicama, longans, Thai basil, banana leaf, fresh kaffir lime leaves and much more.
The fresh kaffir leaves are, in fact, not so exotic. Some years back, explains Damian Fowler at Gilgrove, restrictions halted fresh imports from countries such as Thailand and Malaysia.
An enterprising company, Colonial Growers in Essex, sensed an opportunity and now grow over 140 plants under glass for both the leaves and fruit. "It’s a nice little line," notes Damian. (Available fresh from C&C).
In a twist on the exotic, there’s also the Out of Afrika range (available from C&C and Worldwide). Grown in countries including Zimbabwe and South Africa, it’s not the crops themselves that are unusual – it’s the size.
Baby leeks, courgettes, fennel, turnips, cabbages – this company supplies a lot of mini veg that ends up in restaurants. France is the traditional supplier, but from Africa they can deliver 52 weeks of the year.
Modern logistics are complex, and these traders are the experts.
It’s easy to forget that we’ve used exotic ingredients for centuries. After all, even medieval recipes make fantastic use of spices.