In the Lychee Loop: Miami’s Summer Season Grows into the Genuine Menu

MJ shows off .005% of our 600 pound haul, as culinary assistant Dillon Wolff (left) learns the ropes with chef Max Makowski (right) on inventory, forecasting and other important matters in the growth and support of The Genuine Hospitality Group and Michael Schwartz Events.

We’ve been waiting on these for a while now, so we are really excited to get them in today,” MJ Garcia explains.  MGFD’s Pastry Chef and I are having a handoff of sorts at the Genuine Commissary, our company’s prep kitchen facility off Miami’s bridge-stitched intracoastal waterway at 79th Street. The afternoon boasts clear blue skies and the occasional white puff, with evidence of the morning’s monsoon in glints and mirrors in the pavement.  Seemingly sprung from nowhere in a hurry, complete with umbrella-flailing sideways rain, last Monday, June 19 exhibited typical wet season behavior, weather that grower Roland Samimy picked and plodded through on his family’s Homestead groves before making it rain 600 pounds of lychee at the commissary. We can take a hint, anticipate the cue. Summer has arrived in South Florida in its moody torrent of active skies and colorful ingredients.  

I’m here collecting “seconds” Roland left to indulge my affinity for the alien fruit’s annual arrival, and MJ is humoring the ensuing curiosity, offering a peek into the process of how we systematically shed fuschia reptilian skins to reveal sweet-tart flesh at the table in recognizable, but not necessarily transformative, ways. So you can see and therefore know what you’re eating and discover where it comes from.  The objective of the exchange? To better understand the magic that happens when buying power and supply collide to drive creativity and create demand. Maybe change minds. Even behaviors. Because Roland knows all too well that there’s something to parse here, in the why of “seconds,” panicles with maybe a couple perfect specimens amidst a cluster of immature fruit.

“It was a very very dry, warm winter. The flower came out strong and then dried up or blew off before pollination,” he explained over the phone earlier on his way up Florida’s Turnpike.  “Lychee are special, and they’re fickle. They like tropical, and in a sub-tropical climate with more and more variability each year, crops can’t adapt on a dime. It’s become difficult for local farmers. Projections from year to year are hard.  It’s too hard for them to make the numbers, especially with competition from Mexico and Thailand undercutting prices. Put it all together and you have more trouble growing this fruit and making a living.”

Perry Samimy in the family grove at peak of harvest on June 11, 2011.

So a dry spell and wind at the wrong time can kill a season, even a crop for good.  Take the Samimy operation — a labor of love, really, not the family’s livelihood.  They now have one of largest groves in South Florida at 20 acres, and Michael’s been buying from them since before MGFD existed.  We experienced one of our best seasons in 2015, a dramatic bumper crop that yielded 100,000 pounds from the grove’s 1,100 trees.  The Samimy’s 2017 season will produce 1,000 pounds if they’re lucky, with 1/3 of trees actually fruiting, and only the heartier Brewster variety not the usual first-of-the-season plumper, smoother Mauritius.  That’s a decrease of 99% — erratic to say the least. We call it like we see it: lychee is the canary in the coal mine for climate change.

Dr. Jonathan Crane at University of Florida’s Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead explains that lychee was introduced into Florida before 1880 and by the ’50s there was a lot of interest and promotion of planting. With support from the USDA, Florida Department of Agriculture and interest groups like the 130-year old Florida State Horticultural Society comprised of fruit, vegetable and ornamental farmers, groves sprung up across the state, from Winter Haven in Polk County in the north to all the way down to Miami-Dade. The Florida Lychee Growers Association formed in 1952 even touted “You can plant lychee wherever you can plant citrus!” The thinking back then was the crop had a lot of “cold tolerance” but after four freeze events back to back in December ’57 and January ’58 killed most everything north, the crop dwindled to small plantings here and there in center of state mostly adjacent to lakes and about 100 acres or so in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade Counties. Our neck of the woods is currently home to about 1,000 acres.

Making lychee history, a dip into the archives (courtesy Dr. Crane)

“To be politically incorrect, lychee is a great example of global warming,” says Dr. Crane.  “In order to flower reliably, dormant trees have to be exposed to temperatures below 60°F for anywhere from 300 to 600 hours, depending on how cold it gets.  What has been happening in the past 7-8 years is we are getting less and less cool temperatures in Miami-Dade. They aren’t getting sufficient what we call ‘chilling hours’ to induce them to bloom. There is a macro trend at play here.”

What can we do?  What we do best. Feature and get excited about lychee.  And let you know when something’s up with our sources.

“We save the prettiest ones to serve from pastry, simply over ice,” MJ continues.  “What we try to do and can do now thanks to the commissary and specifically our new big walk-in freezer is extend the season by buying in bulk and time releasing the reserves.  Lychee is such a short season, especially this year, and the best way to store them is shell-on frozen.”

Pastry is already highlighting the fresh product turning out the smooth-as-can-be lychee-coconut-vodka sorbet popular from last year. It debuted at brunch last Sunday in a refreshing sundae with its delicate melt meeting hibiscus syrup and a double whammy of fresh lychee on top. MJ describes it as the perfect canvas for lychee, “subtle, fragrant and fresh.”  They loaded ella with a batch of popsicles yesterday.

Chef de Cuisine Tim Piazza has plenty cooking beginning this week. On Friday we tasted Yellowfin Tuna Crudo with lychee, serrano, pink peppercorn, basil, and lime from the MGFD raw bar and then followed along as he put together Crispy Pork Belly & Lychee with coconut milk, herbs, chile, and cashews.  Both super delicious and such different yet compelling expressions of the same ingredient!  A lightly cured shrimp and lychee dish was a hit last year at dinner, so we’re hoping it will be back or perhaps a variation.

Phoenix: Bacardi Superior, St. Germain, lychee, grenadine, lemon, cranberry

The MGFD bar always does a great job of maximizing yield, capturing luscious juice for cocktails like Phoenix with Bacardi Superior, St. Germain, grenadine, lemon and cranberry.  TGHG Beverage Manager Amanda Fraga loves lychee for its unique flavor. There’s always a Lychee Martini available, special because it’s made with fresh lychee juice, not the typical canned variety you might be used to, and the guest’s choice of vodka. The sky’s the limit from there since it plays so well with other fruit flavors, as well as a wide range of spirits.

Stay in the lychee loop on our restaurant menus throughout the summer with the hashtag #genuinelychee.  Keep your eyes peeled for other tree fruits, like nectarines, mangos and cherries cropping up everywhere.  It’s going to be a fruitful summer no matter what!

The Genuine Kitchen’s backstory on the Samimy family groves, the local lychee crop, and its embrace in our restaurants can be found here.  I also interviewed Chef for the first time for a piece on the Miami New Times food blog here, as the first lychee harvest of 2009 rolled in.