"It's like owning a boat," notes Michael Schwartz, executive chef-proprietor of Nemo, Shoji Sushi, and Big Pink, on the way back from picking lychees at his friend Roland Samimy's grove down in the Redland. But it's "better to have a friend who owns a boat."
Schwartz is referring, of course, to the amount of responsibility you assume when you invest in a big-ticket item, be it a boat or a lychee grove. For your pleasure, which is the only likely return you'll get on such an investment, you have to put in a serious amount of work.
It's a lesson Roland Samimy, his wife Ellen, and his parents Lina and Jean are learning in a fire-ant-bitten, branch-scraped, hands-on kind of way. Roland, a senior water-resources scientist at a global engineering/environmental consulting firm, began assisting Jean with the grove, which currently comprises about 600 trees, when he returned to his childhood home of Miami in 1994. Roland confesses, "We were tired of the winters in the Northeast," where he and Ellen attended college, graduating in 1990. "Soon after moving down, we started taking care of the trees with my dad. As the years have gone by, things have essentially evolved into my mom and dad being the “board of directors,' and Ellen and I making up operations, with the help of my older sister when we are in a pinch." He pauses. "I say “board of directors' humorously because we are not that official."
Indeed they are not. With Roland and Ellen in a separate truck laden with waxed fruit boxes, shears, and bottled water, we caravan down to the fully laden lychee grove, where the knobby reddish fruit hangs in clusters like grapes that have grown too close to a nuclear reactor, in Schwartz's Cadillac SUV. Aside from Roland and Ellen, the picking crew is almost thoroughly inexperienced -- Schwartz, his publicist, my sister (visiting from New York City), and me, thoughtlessly wearing sandals instead of socks and sneakers. Before we get started, we scarf down the muffins and cookies that Nemo pastry chef Hedy Goldsmith baked. Then the Samimys pull up: Lina in an Infiniti with a family friend newly arrived from France in tow, Jean in his bronze Porsche. Ellen, about three months pregnant with their first child, is valiantly fanning herself in the 96 percent humidity and chatting about morning sickness with my sister. I forget to watch where I am standing and receive about a dozen painful bites before I realize I'm perched on an ant hill. Observing the scene as I frantically brush ants from my feet, Roland remarks dryly: "Obviously we're not farmers. We're urban dwellers."
Still, as a sideline, growing lychees appears to be a logical hobby for Roland, since he holds a couple of master's degrees in water-resources engineering and environmental policy and conducted research on saline lakes down at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Antarctica. (Ellen is a software trainer at a large law firm in Miami.) If anyone understands the intricate relationship among soil, salt, and water -- that lychees naturally grow best on alluvial loam but will take on our native oolitic limestone as long as they are appropriately irrigated -- it's he.
For his parents the decision to buy a plot of ten acres in the spring after Hurricane Andrew and replant them with the lychee trees that had been blown away makes much less sense, at least on the face of it. Jean Samimy, M.D., is an obstetrician/gynecologist, and Lina Samimy, M.D., is a pathologist. Both were born in Tehran, Iran, where their families were acquainted; Lina and Jean were "cribmates." Then the two families lost contact. The pair met for a second time when both studied medicine in France and eventually married, emigrating to the United States in the Sixties "with a couple of suitcases and my older sister, who was about three," as Roland puts it. Although Jean Samimy had taken a medical equivalency exam before leaving France and therefore was eligible to work in the United States, Lina was at a disadvantage. Roland says, "She had to quickly learn English, pass the American medical boards, and redo her internship, residency, and fellowship -- all the while raising me and my little sister, born in Brooklyn in 1968 and '69, respectively."
Doctor of medicine degrees and luxury cars aside, the years of hard work have paid off -- in romance. Lina's father, Parviz Zargar, used to take his family out of sultry Tehran for the summer. The family would camp out for months at a time in a fruit orchard. "That grove was like magic," Lina recalls, almost visibly picturing the plums, peaches, and apples. "The owner of the orchard also kept beehives. I remember him sitting outside the beehives, killing the rogue bees with a long stick. At the end of the season, he would release the queen bee, and she would make a new hive." For the initial investment of $60,000 (land, trees, fertilizer, and equipment) that it cost the Samimys, Lina can now wallow in nostalgia and dream of her birth country; as far as she's concerned, it's money well spent.
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Jean isn't quite as starry-eyed about the project, though he has his own reasons to romanticize: His father, Seyfollah Samimy, was the agricultural engineer who introduced the sugar-cane industry to Iran; Seyfollah married Henriette, a French woman whose father was an agricultural scientist and also one of his professors. So you might say cultivation runs in the Samimy blood.
Jean, however, realizes that owning fruit trees is "romantic as long as you don't have to pick the fruit." This is only the second year the trees have really set a generous crop, and the first year that Roland has hired pickers -- who pay the Samimys by the pound and take the fruit with them to resell -- to do the majority of the plucking and pruning. "Being out here just for an hour, you really get a sense of how hard these people have to work," Jean sighs, wiping his forehead under his straw hat and swiping at the gnats. Meanwhile Roland is on his cell phone checking wholesale prices, while the rest of us clip branches of Brewster and Mauritius lychees and pack them (those we don't peel and eat) in boxes for Schwartz to take back to Nemo and transform into items like crab and lychee spring rolls.
Clearly, though, the bugs in the lychee grove don't bother Lina or Ellen, who speculate about setting up platforms (to avoid the ant hills ) and camping under the finally fertile boughs of fruit. Michael Schwartz is so thrilled to have the lychees at his disposal that he speed-clips, skipping from tree to tree. (Though we pack about fifteen boxes, we don't even make a dent.) Roland sums it up nicely: "The long and the short of it is that we are all hooked on lychees. So why not have a grove of the stuff, an endless supply?"
Why not indeed. While I'm not as enchanted with the gnats and ants (or lychees themselves, truth be known), I am thoroughly taken with my own little seasonal drama: the eleven mango trees that produce a virtual hail of viable fruit on my roof every summer. And though I knew I was going to meet the owner of the lychee grove, I had no idea it would turn out to be an old college friend: Roland and I lived across the hall from each other at Tufts University when we were freshmen. If I'd been informed back then that I would grow up to be a food writer with a back-yard mango orchard and someday pen an article about Roland Samimy, water-resources engineer and lychee-grove owner, I'm sure I would have stopped drinking the hard stuff right there and then. As it stands now, I'm planning on steeping some lychee vodka this year, along with mango liqueur. For as Michael Schwartz already knows, and Roland and I both concede, the best part about raising succulent, subtropical fruit is giving it away to friends.