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Summer Love With The Passionate ‘Fruit Hunters’

Bill Pullman with Hawaiian horticulturalist Ken Love holding a durian fruit. Credit: Courtesy of EyeSteelFilms

Bill Pullman with Hawaiian horticulturalist Ken Love holding a durian fruit. Credit: Courtesy of EyeSteelFilms, all rights reserved

This Sunday morning, we filled our farmers market baskets with fragrant heirloom melons, the tastiest of the dozens of varieties of plums and pluots on offer and piles of fresh greens, lugging home a rough balance of fruits and vegetables.

Scientists might identify our fruits according to which produce started out as a flower.  Sweetness, however, is the distinction that makes a difference to us.

The perfect accompaniment to the season’s intoxicating abundance is Yung Chang’s film “The Fruit Hunters,” a love letter to the world’s rarest, most delicious fruits and the people obsessed with finding and eating them, which is being released on DVD and digital on July 16.

Chang calls his cast of sweet freaks “fruities” and they are manic about the taste of their favorite fruits. “There is a need to grow the fruit, to cultivate the fruit, not just to taste it,” he says. “There is an explorative, adventuresome sensibility. They want to discover the origin of the fruit they love.”

Don’t call them “foodies,” says Chang. Fruities only love to eat fruit.

Inspired by his friend Adam Leith Gollner’s 2008 nonfiction book “The Fruit Hunters,” Chang spent two years following fruit obsessed scientists, anthropologists and conservationists around the world in search of nature’s sweetest treats.

Noris Ledesma and Richard Campbell lead an Indiana Jones-like quest for rare mangoes in Bali and Borneo as they race to preserve disappearing varieties. Honduran scientist Juan Aguilar struggles to breed a banana capable of resisting a devastating fungus threatening the world’s banana crop. And in the hills of Umbria, Italy, Isabella Dalla Ragione researches Renaissance-era paintings for clues to where she might find the remaining examples of ancient cultivars.

As Gollner writes in his book, “These denizens of the fruit underworld are as special as the flora they pursue.” Largely hidden from the public eye, “they have devoted themselves to the quest for fruit.”

The passion is understandable, he writes. “Fruit is inherently erotic. After all, every time we eat a fruit, we engage in a reproductive act.”

Food porn for the smart set

“I’ve lived for the last 20 years for each day off when I can learn more about fruit,” Bill Pullman told the crowd at a Santa Monica screening of “The Fruit Hunters” earlier this summer. The star of Chang’s film, Pullman is a fruit tourist traveling to tropical fruit hot spots to meet his fruit heroes and learn their secrets, slurping and moaning over each local delicacy he discovers along the way.

Yung Chang, internationally award-winning filmmaker, made his first feature documentary, "Up the Yangtze," in 2007. Credit: Courtesy of EyeSteelFilm

Yung Chang, internationally award-winning filmmaker, made his first feature documentary, “Up the Yangtze,” in 2007. Credit: Courtesy of EyeSteelFilm, all rights reserved

At home, the actor is a fruit community organizer, leading his Hollywood Hills neighbors in a quixotic quest to turn abandoned land near their homes into a community orchard. He spreads the gospel of fruit through communal fruit harvests, known as gleanings, and homey canning parties.

There is urgency to the effort, Pullman explains. Industrial farming has taken a toll on fruit diversity. The race is on to save what is left.

Fruities believe a special bond connects fruits and humans, says Chang. Fruits nourish us and, through the act of consuming it, we ensure the future of that fruit species by dispersing its seeds.

“It is a love affair gone awry,” he says. “We need to reconnect with what it means to be a fruit hunter. These people we meet [in the film], these fruit hunters, take us through the world to rediscover our innate connection with fruit.”

As Gollner writes, “To love a diversity that, as limitless as it is fragile, both haunts us and fills us with hope.”

‘Fruit Hunters’ unearths an inner-fruit fanatic

“My connection to fruit was nostalgic,” says Chang. The people, not the fruit, drew him to the project. Several months into filming, he realized things had changed.

Noris Ledesma and Richard Campbell, the “Indiana Joneses” of fruit, seek to find and preserve rare varieties of mangos and durians. Credit: Courtesy of EyeSteelFilm

Noris Ledesma and Richard Campbell, the “Indiana Joneses” of fruit, look to find and preserve rare varieties of mangos and durians. Credit: Courtesy of EyeSteelFilm, all rights reserved

“At the beginning, I was very focused as a filmmaker, looking through the lens, so to speak. But people were always handing me fruit to eat. You can’t deny it. You have to taste it,” Chang says. The revelations “became overwhelming. Everywhere. Every second. Someone would have, for instance, a freshly fallen durian fruit [a spiky skinned Southeast Asian fruit with creamy almond flavored pulp] in the backyard of a grandmother’s home and at that moment that would be my favorite fruit.

“Then we’d be at a nursery in Hawaii and I’d be presented with a Burmese grape. It looks like it is in the lychee family. You open the shell, and inside is this semi-translucent pearl with swirls of pink. It tastes like Bubblicious gum.”

The tart, sweet blue Haskap berry that grows in arctic climates and has three times the antioxidant value of blueberries will be the next fruit craze, predicts Chang.

You don’t have to be a fruitie to enjoy “The Fruit Hunters.” The film is playful and joyous, a feast for the mind and the senses.

“When you watch this much food porn, you’ll want to eat fruit,” cautions Pullman. “Would you have come to a movie about vegetables?”

Corie Brown, the co-founder and general manager of Zester Daily, is an award-winning food and wine writer. "Start Your Own Microbrewery, Distillery, or Cidery," a book she wrote with reporting from Zester Daily's network of contributors, was released by Entrepreneur Books in June 2015.

  • Lindsay 9·6·13

    Great article about the fruit hunters. You may be interested in my own fruit hunting quest for the durian fruit in Southeast Asia. I spent an entire year traveling through 9 countries to look for rare species of durian. You can read more about durian and our travels on our site,