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Sweet mystery.

WAY UP THE FOGGY Puerto Rican mountain town of Adjuntas, the locals grow, pack and export a fruit many people have never even heard of, let alone seen. The mystery fruit is citron--a delicacy mentioned in the Bible, prized since Roman times, honored by Jews during the Sukkot holiday and an essential ingredient in fruitcakes. Puerto Rico today produces 65 percent of the world's citron supply. The remainder comes from Italy and Greece.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Cooperativa Cosecheros de Cidra, a citron farming cooperative founded during World War II and responsible for a third of the island's citron exports. "Our climate is perfect for the production of citrons. Adjuntas has a fresh rainy climate, and citrons need lots of rain," said the cooperative's controller, Vincente Martinez, whose company is one of three in the little-known business.

Martinez, who is happy to give visitors a tour of the operations, said his cooperative exports around 2.5 million pounds of citron a year--almost all of it on contract for Steensma N.V., a Dutch confectioner. Some 90 percent of the fruit comes from the cooperative's 114 active members, who receive $10 per 100 pounds. "There's so much production now, we had to drop our prices." he said. "Before we were paying $16."

Andries DeJong, manager of Citron Export Inc., said total 1992 production weighed in at six million pounds. At 32 cents a pound, this comes to just under two million dollars--slightly less than 1991 exports. Most production goes to Holland and Germany; about 15 percent is exported to the United States.

Approximately 750 acres of citrons are under cultivation. Once the fruit is harvested, it must be fermented in concrete tanks for about three months. Then it is depulped, chopped into tiny cubes of six or nine millimeters each, depending on the customer's needs, and packed into wooden rum barrels lined with plastic bags. "The depulping process can never be automated because each fruit is different," DeJong explained. "Either we would lose too much fruit or we would throw away too much."

Once the barrels are filled with diced fruit, workers add a mixture of water, salt and sulfides as preservatives. Truckers then take the loaded containers to the Port of Ponce, where vessels belonging to either Hapag-Lloyd or Intership transport the fruit to Rotterdam, a ten-day voyage. Upon arrival in Holland, said DeJong, "they desalt the fruit, then it is boiled and mixed with sugar syrup, which is slowly concentrated. It takes two or three days before the fruit is saturated with enough sugar and ready to be used. After it is candied and has 72 to 74 percent sugar, it is mixed with other ingredients for making fruitcake."

Immigrants from the French island of Corsica began growing citron trees in Puerto Rico more than 100 years ago. "The Corsicans had an industry, and they brought the seeds to Puerto Rico," said DeJong, 56, who has spent the last 30 years on the island managing the family business his father started in Holland a generation earlier. DeJong, who lives in Adjuntas with his Dutch wife, says that although the rare fruit could just as easily be grown in Cuba, the Dominican Republic or elsewhere in the Caribbean, worldwide demand is too small to warrant so much production. "Nobody without a secure market would start growing citrons on a commercial scale. Citrons are for the purpose of candying only; they cannot be sold as fresh fruit."

Ironically, while Puerto Rico has almost the entire world's citron market wrapped up, there is almost no local market for the fruit, except for "dulce de cidra"--canned citrons in a syrup of sugar, caramel and Vitamin C--which the cooperative sells to the Puerto Rican school lunch program at $42 a case.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Puerto Rico's citron fruit industry
Author:Luxner, Larry
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Mar 1, 1993
Words:632
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