(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel July 29, 2007)
There is a popular misconception among people who have never lived in Florida. To them, ours is a one-season state: hot-and-humid.
"How can you stand it?" they'll ask. "
You have no autumn, no spring, no winter -- just summer all year round?
"Well, I like summer. I'd rather be hot than cold. But all that is beside the point, because I disagree with the basic premise.
The way I see it, Florida is bursting with seasonal changes. Every month seems to trigger the arrival of a new flower or fruit. The air is continually filled with a revolving door of fragrances -- gardenias one month, orange blossoms another. Jasmine, honeysuckle, loquat, ginger: Each plant in its own season delights the nose and stimulates the senses.Yes, it gets hot here, but it also gets cold. No matter how mild the winter is, there's always a period of dormancy when deciduous trees become a skeleton of their former selves.
In the flush of spring, leaves emerge, and later there's an autumnal flutter when the bright orange, red, yellow and amber-colored remnants of swamp maples, sycamores, tupelo trees and Chinese tallows fall to the ground.
Right now, we're entering one of my favorite periods, grape season.
A special kind of grape grows in our Southern climate. It's a muscadine with a funny name -- scuppernong. Many people don't realize grapes grow in Florida, let alone that they can be handpicked right here in our own neighborhood. Anyone who appreciates the incomparable taste of locally grown produce should consider this a wake-up call -- grape season is upon us!
Scuppernongs are a large, round, thick-skinned, bronze-colored fruit. They're a seeded grape that is exceedingly sweet, making it an excellent candidate for wine, juice, jam or jelly. But I never get that far. I think scuppernongs are best eaten by the handful -- preferably out of a very large bowl filled to the brim with the antioxidant-rich fruit.
Every year my daughter, son and I go to Tommy Free's U-pick farm on the shores of Lake Apshawa in Clermont to pick grapes. Our August expeditions to Free's farm have become something of a seasonal tradition. For less money than it takes to rent a video, we can take home a bulging bag of fruit more flavorful than anything you can buy in stores.
Picking is easy. Grapes grow on vines trained to cover long fence lines. You simply walk down the rows, reach under the leaves and pluck the largest, juiciest fruit you can find. It's a bit like a treasure hunt with sweet treats as the reward.
In a recent phone conversation, Tommy Free said, "This is the biggest and best year ever."
Free knows what he is talking about. He has been growing grapes at his family's 2-acre farmstead since 1987. The U-pick season begins at Free's Lake Apshawa Farm on Aug. 4 and continues until the grapes are all gone a few weeks later.
Unfortunately, family farms have become endangered species in these land-hungry times. During the past decade, developers have gobbled up many a vineyard, grove or field. After chewing up the land, they spit out tract houses on napkin-sized lots.
Often, the only hint that a farm or grove existed at all is in the name of the subdivision.
How many citrus trees remain in Orange Tree Country Club or in Greater Groves? It's a sad but ironic fact that developers frequently name their subdivisions after the very plant or animal they've managed to destroy in the process of "resculpting" the land.
Last year six farms were listed on pickyourown.org, a Web site devoted to helping people around the world find local farms where they can pick fresh fruit and vegetables. This year in all of Central Florida, I know of only three U-pick grape growers still in business: Tommy Free's Lake Apshawa Farm, Valley View Vineyard on the outskirts of Howey-in-the-Hills and Shady Oak Farm in Lakeland.
Grape season may just be beginning, but considering the insatiable appetite of developers, I wouldn't be surprised if these and other produce-bearing operations disappeared from the landscape in the not too distant future.
So, act now.
Gather up the kids and take a drive in August to one of the few remaining U-pick grape farms. Make it an outing, something the whole clan can do together. If your family is anything like mine, your trip to the vineyard will yield far more than golden globes of goodness. It will include a harvest of memories to be savored for a lifetime.
That's one seasonal feast too good to miss.