The History of Guavaberry–The Caviar of Fruits

Guavaberry—The Caviar of Fruits

When a Caribbean-born person ventures far and wide, one of the flavors he most craves is that of the guavaberry. And today, with next-day courier services routinely making intercontinental deliveries, it is not uncommon for a package destined for a Caribbean national to include a jar of guavaberry preserve. It is as if the fruit’s unique, spicy, sweet-bitter flavor is in the DNA of the region’s peoples.

Myrciaria floribunda, a member of the myrtle family, is a shrublike tree native to the Caribbean and parts of Central and South America. However, the species is most commonly found in the Lesser Antilles, especially on the Dutch/French island of Sint Maarten/Saint Martin, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the British Virgin Islands. The tree bears a diminutive fruit called “guavaberry” or “rumberry” that has been dubbed “the caviar of fruits”: It is tiny—about the size of a large fish egg or a pearl. The peeling-bark characteristic of the guavaberry tree is remarkably similar to that of its close relative, Psidium guajava, the botanical name for the guava fruit, which is also native to the region.  Myrciaria floribunda is also botanically related to the Jamaican allspice and the South American eucalyptus.  

Harvested around October, the guavaberry fruit is either blackish-red or amber-yellow in color; has a delicious, distinctive flavor, so much so that it is one of the defining flavors of the Caribbean; and is both rare and prized. And because the harvest years and times are unpredictable, the appearance of the fruit is regarded by the region’s peoples  as a special blessing from Mother Nature.

The historic record indicates that pre-Columbian peoples prized the fruit.  And in 1767 Christian Georg Andreas Oldendorp, in his capacity as inspector for the Moravian Church, journeyed to the Danish West Indies to report on the Moravian missions, which had been established in the islands 35 years earlier, beginning in 1732. Oldendorp remained in the islands for a year and a half, observing the islands and their peoples.  In 1777 he published History of the Mission of the Evangelical Brethren on the Caribbean Islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John.   And of the precious guavaberry he writes: “I must also make mention of another small tree which I have not at all seen, but whose berries—they are called guavaberries—I have eaten.  Like cherries, they are very round, black or yellow. They have one or two small kernels, a pleasant spicy taste, and are quite healthful. They are eaten in the morning on an empty stomach. When prepared in rum, they take on a strong, sweet taste.”

Guavaberry is related to the Brazilian “jabuticaba” (Plinia cauliflora) and is similar in appearance and flavor, except that the guavaberry is about one-third the size and has a flavor of about ten times as intense as its South American counterpart. Guavaberry is also closely related to another Brazilian native, Psidium cattleyanum, also known as strawberry guava or cherry guava, and like guavaberry, comes in two varieties, purple-red and yellow.

The guavaberry plant tends to thrive in sunny, hilly terrain with rich, rocky soil. Because the tree is more shrub-like than tree-like, the fruits are most efficiently harvested when ripe by shaking them from the branches onto a drop-cloth or net. The somewhat-astringent fruit, which tastes like lingon berry, but with undertones of juniper, is oftentimes eaten fresh. But because guavaberry is relatively scarce, it is typically preserved to ensure an annual supply. Held between thumb and index finger, the fruit is gently squeezed, thereby expelling its round stone, which is about half the size of the fruit. The juice, pulp, and skin are then cooked with sugar to make a preserve that is traditionally used to make open-face tarts and as an obligatory topping of one of the layers of the authentic Crucian Vienna cake. The preserve is also added to rum then filtered (typically through cheesecloth or a coffee filter) to make “guavaberry liqueur,” customarily drunk during Christmastime throughout the Caribbean, but especially in the Virgin Islands, Sint Maarten/St. Martin, and part of the Dominican Republic. “Guavaberry rum,” on the other hand—also drunk in the region during the Christmas season—is made by macerating the fresh fruit in rum, thereby infusing the rum (traditionally kept in a demijohn) with guavaberry’s unique flavor and reddish color, a process which takes at least a year. Stored in a cool, dark, dry place in a tightly sealed demijohn or glass container, guavaberry rum can endure indefinitely, improving with age. Unlike its liqueur counterpart, guavaberry rum is not filtered; it is poured directly from the demijohn, the objective being for each serving to contain a portion of the macerated fruit.

On St. Croix, Armstrong’s Homemade Ice Cream, founded in the year 1900 by Minerva Petersen, ancestor of the present-day Armstrong family of the town of Frederiksted, makes a guavaberry ice cream that is highly coveted. Offered only during the Christmas season and on the occasion of the island’s annual Agriculture & Food Fair in February, people queue up—as if buying tickets for a rock concert or a blockbuster movie—to get their serving of the locally famous ice cream. 

The guavaberry fruit is so esteemed in the Virgin Islands that it has been honored in folksong.  Every Christmas season, from time immemorial, Virgin Islanders serenade each other—whether in the historic towns or in the countryside—with the lyrics,

“Good mornin’, good mornin’,

ah come foh mih guavaberry,

good mornin’… [to you an’ yoh family].”

The lyrics suggest the customary right of the visitor to politely demand the holiday treat from the person whom he serenades.  

Beginning in the late 1800s, when Virgin Islanders seeking employment opportunities in the sugarcane industry would emigrate to the Dominican Republic, settling in San Pedro de Macoris and La Romana, they took with them their age-old guavaberry traditions.  And today, when there is scarcity of the esteemed fruit in the Virgin Islands, it is fruit imported from the Dominican Republic that fills the void. Likewise, in keeping with the custom of honoring the fruit in song, “Santo” singer Juan Luis Guerra, in his song titled Guavaberry, pays homage to the drink made of the fruit being enjoyed in the streets of San Pedro de Macoris.

Three Kings’ Day marks the closing of the Christmas holidays.  And it is the tradition of the Virgin Islands to celebrate the occasion with a glass of the islands’ most venerated beverage:  guavaberry rum or liqueur. Such has been the custom throughout four centuries of recorded Virgin Islands history.

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