Autumn in Virginia brings pawpaws, a.k.a. the Shenandoah banana, America's largest indigenous fruit. They have a cloying apple mixed with banana mixed with kiwi smell, a custardy flesh, and an elusive taste. Ask anyone to describe the taste of pawpaw and watch them struggle. It's a completely intriguing fruit. Yet nobody in the restaurant world works with them. To begin with, there are no commercial growers. The season is too short (weeks). The shelf life is too narrow (days). And the skin is too fragile (tears at the slightest bump). Suffice it to say they will never appear in the grocery store fruit bin. This, of course, makes them all the more appealing to us, especially since we have recently come across a pawpaw source! Wild groves are now available to us at Echo Valley Farm in Bath County. All we have to do is pick them ourselves....
On the drive home, we start talking possibilities: pawpaw pies, pawpaw sorbet, pawpaw drinks, pawpaw mixed with this and that. We decide the Red Hen will invent The Definitive Paw Paw Dessert...and then The Definitive PawPaw Cocktail. The grandiosity builds. We are going to put pawpaws on the map. We can't wait for people to come from miles around (and away) to eat pawpaws at the Red Hen. It is going to be awesome.
Pawpaws are about thirty percent seed. Black shiny nickel-sized seeds. It had been a few years since we had eaten pawpaw, and we had forgotten about this. Oops. Even worse, the seeds are distributed throughout the fruit, so you have to dig out each one individually or you won't have enough pawpaw left to work with. Chef Matt, a pawpaw rookie who had been excited to start working with them, cuts into one and has a small heart attack. Still, he peels them all and excavates every single seed (he is an amazing sport). It's a ridiculous amount of work for just a little bit of fruit. But Matt does wonders with it. He mixes it with eggs, vanilla and brandy, pours into a tart shell, and tops it with whipped cream and pistachios. The pawpaw cream tart is a winner. It's kind of like a banana cream tart, but more exciting. It has a citrusy flavor that you can't quite put your finger on. We could eat this every day! Unfortunately, the word "pawpaw" now makes Matt wince. The seeds.
A few days ago, Matt started making pawpaw wine. It will be ready in six months. We are not sure how it will turn out--or even, if it does turn out, whether it will appear on the menu. Matt is so over pawpaws.
But, oh, how we would dearly love to eat this again: