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Puerto Rico: Citrons put the fruit in the cake
The Packer / December 25, 1995

By Larry Luxner

ADJUNTAS, Puerto Rico -- Way up in the foggy Puerto Rican mountain town of Adjuntas, the locals grow, pack and export much of the world's supply of a fruit most people have never 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.

Thanks to the lush fields around Adjuntas, Puerto Rico today produces 65% of the world's citron supply. The remainder comes from Italy and Greece.

"Our climate is perfect for production of citrons. Adjuntas has a fresh rainy climate, and citrons need lots of rain," says Vicente Martinez, controller at the Cooperativea Cosecheros de Cidra, a citron growers' cooperative founded during World War II and responsible for a third of the island's citron exports. His company is one of three in the citron business.

Martinez, who's only too happy to give visitors a tour of the operations, said his cooperative exports around 2.5 million pounds of citrons a year -- almost all of it on contract for Steensma N.V., a Dutch company.

Some 90% 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."

Admittedly, citron production is relatively small compared to the island's other crops. Puerto Rico grows and exports bananas, papayas, fresh and processed pineapples, as well as a bewildering variety of exotic tropical fruits such as guavas, tamarindos, parchas (passion fruit) and guanabanas (soursops). Yet the citron story enjoys a unique place in Puerto Rican agribusiness, mainly because it is confined to such a small area.

Andries DeJong is manager of Citron Export Inc. across the road from the cooperative, about a mile outside town along rural Highway 10. He said total annual production amounts to around six million pounds; at an average 32 cents a pound, this comes to just under $2 million. Most production goes to Holland and Germany, though about 15% is exported to the U.S. mainland.

According to DeJong, only 750 acres of citron trees are under cultivation in Puerto Rico -- all of it within the municipality of Adjuntas, which also produces large quantities of coffee and bananas. After harvesting, the fruit is allowed to ferment 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," said DeJong, 56, who's spent 32 years on the island managing the family business his father started in Holland a generation earlier. "Either we'd lose too much fruit or we'd throw away too much."

Once the barrels are filled with diced fruit, a mixture of water, salt and sulfides is added as a preservative. Truckers then take the loaded containers (110 barrels can fit into a 40-foot box) to the port of Ponce, where Hapag-Lloyd or Intership vessels transport the fruit to Rotterdam, a 10-day voyage.

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 seeds to Puerto Rico," said DeJong, who lives with his Dutch wife in Adjuntas, a town of about 20,000 inhabitants. He 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," he said.

Besides its use in fruitcakes, there's another, perhaps higher, purpose for citrons: Orthodox Jews buy the fruit during Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles. Along with palm fronds, myrtle and willow branches, the citron -- esrog in Hebrw -- symbolizes the Biblical harvest. Today, Israel cultivates its own small supply of citrons specifically for the holiday, and doesn't need to import any fruit from Puerto Rico.

Ironically, while the Caribbean island has almost the entire world's citron market wrapped up, there's almost no local demand 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 Rico school-lunch program at $42 a case.

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