Grapefruit rivals debate which has top fruit

January 28, 2009|By ROB KASPER

It is the height of grapefruit season, a time to feast on fruit shipped in to us from warmer climes.

The tastiest grapefruit in America come either from Florida or Texas, depending on whom you speak to. After listening to folks on both sides of this fruit fight, I concluded that the rivalry between these two grapefruit-growing regions resembled one surrounding a college football game. This was, in other words, another citrus bowl where almost every facet of a rival grapefruit's appeal was contested.

Take, for instance, the matter of the fruit's color.

Texans proclaim that redder is better.

"The redder the fruit, the higher the sugar content and therefore the sweeter the grapefruit," said Eleisha Ensign, executive director of TexaSweet, a marketing entity in Mission, Texas, that trumpets citrus grown in the Lone Star State.

Since the 1950s, she said, very little white grapefruit has been grown in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. The region's two leading red varieties are Texas Red and an even more crimson variety known as Rio Star. The Rio Star is, according to Ensign, "10 times redder" than Florida's Ruby Red grapefruit, which, she added, is actually pink.

"Florida is the Rolls-Royce of fruit," said Doug Bournique, executive vice president of the Indian River Citrus League, which produces 70 percent of Florida's grapefruit. He said that when U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists evaluated American fruit being shipped to countries in the European Union, they found Florida grapefruit "had the thinnest skin" and the highest sugar content.

"They grow a good piece of fruit in Texas," Bournique said. "It is just a little bit behind ours."

Karen Mathis of Florida's Department of Citrus said that Florida fruit comes in a diversity of colors, ranging from traditional white varieties, such as Marsh and Duncan, to subtle pinks such as Ruby Red, to the unrestrained red of Flame. As for how color affected taste, Mathis referred me to the state agency's Web site, which stated "scientific research has shown there is no difference in the tastes of each variety, only pigment color."

Both sides did agree that pink and red grapefruit, regardless of where they are grown, have more lycopene and vitamin A than white grapefruit. Lycopene has been associated with decreasing the risk of ovarian cancer and prostate cancer, as well as helping prevent heart disease. Vitamin A is good for our eyes.

But all grapefruit, it seemed to me, packs a nutritional wallop. A 2007 Florida study comparing the nutrient densities of the juice from apples, grapes, orange, pineapple, prune and grapefruit, gave the highest marks to grapefruit. The juice from Ruby Red grapefruit came out on top of the nutritional pyramid, followed by orange juice, while juice from white grapefruit finished third.

Back on the subject of regional rivalry, both the Texans and Floridians asserted that bad weather had helped produce an exceptional grapefruit crop this year.

Hurricane Ike did considerable damage late last summer to the coast of Texas. It wiped out 10 percent to 15 percent of the Texas grapefruit trees, Ensign said. But the remainder of the crop benefited from the exceptional rainfall, she said.

Not to be outdone on the natural-disaster front, the Florida contingent said Tropical Storm Fay in August helped produce this year's bountiful grapefruit crop. "Fay was a godsend," Bournique said. "We had been in a drought; Fay refilled the canals. She gave us a little too much water, but we'll take that."

Both states, it seems to me, have more grapefruit than they know what to do with, and have come up with some unusual ploys to use the excess. One suggested beauty regime found on the gofloridagrape fruit.com Web site, for example, called for rubbing your skin with a mixture made of almond oil, ginger, salt and grapefruit rind.

Meanwhile, the Texas grapefruit group is co-sponsoring a $5,000 contest this month looking for recipes that prove grapefruit "is not just for breakfast anymore."

After listening to both sides of the grapefruit tussle, I went to several Baltimore grocery stores and bought both red and white fruit.

I couldn't find any Texas grapefruit. Produce workers at two stores - Eddie's of Roland Park and Wegmans in Hunt Valley - told me that Texas fruit had been in town earlier this month and should return soon.

When I got my grapefruit home, I made a dish called Grapefruit Ambrosia, a version of the Southern dessert of that name that mixes coconut and oranges.

It was a cold winter night when I made this dessert. Yet after a few spoonfuls of this crunchy mixture of grapefruit, sweetened coconut, sugar, some toasted pistachios and a shot of red vermouth (a substitution for Campari), my mood improved. I had been sour. Now I felt sunny. I guess I have to give the credit to Florida.

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