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The kings and queens of tropicalia

Tuesday October 17, 2006

Anastasia Moloney

Every day black women draped in flowing, colourful dresses stroll along Cartagena's stretch of grey-sanded beach. They effortlessly balance large bowls of tropical fruits on their heads. These sturdy women are known as the palenqueras, named after their native town of Palenque. Over the centuries these fruit queens have become a symbol of the city.

The palenqueras carry an array of fruits that are commonplace and in abundance in Colombia all year round. These range from oversized papayas, mini-mangoes, yellowy banana passion fruits, bitter tree tomatoes, guavas, pitayas, succulent pineapples and sweet green feijoas to tangy orange lulos shaped liked tomatoes and the juicy white flesh of the soursops.

Using a small machete, the palenqueras peel and slice these fruits with the flair of an artist and in a matter of minutes rustle up a fruit salad to your individual tastes for less than $4 a go.

Popping out for a fruit juice has become part of my morning ritual. The pulp of fruits is expertly drained to make juices using a blender, mixed with either milk or water and generous amounts of sugar. It is served in tall silvery glasses or small plastic buckets with ice. It's a meal in itself. My usual juice is a mixture of strawberry and lulo fruits, but there are endless possible mixes and it would take months to try them all.

The king of fruits, as it's the most expensive, is the mangostino. It is a rare leathery deep purple fruit that looks a bit like a pomegranate. Inside is a succulent aromatic white flesh, with a similar texture to a lychee.

My favourite is granadilla, a round, orange shiny fruit with a thick, brittle rind, known to be good for the digestive system. Inside are fragrant crunchy black seeds in a jelly-like pulp, which despite looking like frogspawn is delicious and refreshing.

Street vendors sell peeled strips of unripe mango served with honey and salt, giving a bittersweet taste that Colombians crave. Along the narrow streets, fruit-sellers wheel carts laden with pyramids of ripe avocadoes the size of small melons. On the Rosario Islands, a short boat ride from Cartagena, warm, watery coconut milk is served in its shell. A generous dash of local white rum turns it into a pina colada.

Then there are the fruit desserts sold inside the colonial walled city of Cartagena. Along a shady arcade are rows of stalls selling home-made sweets. Tall glass jars are filled to the brim with sticky, white-and-pink coconut cakes flavoured with guava, soursop and iced chunks of papaya. ?Dulces para los ninos,? (sweets for the children) the vendors cry.

There are fruits I have yet to discover. It's just one of the pleasures of living in Colombia ? in the land of the tropical fruits.

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