DeKALB – Austin Cliffe said he’s “been riding the high of the win” after he claimed the top prize at an Ohio-based festival celebrating America’s largest native fruit – the pawpaw.
Cliffe, 40, of DeKalb participated in the Ohio Pawpaw Festival, held Sept. 16 through 18, in Albany, Ohio. But he didn’t anticipate winning the festival with his homegrown DeKalb pawpaws. When Cliffe found out his cluster of Tollgate variety had been awarded the title of Best Pawpaw, he burst through his tent to tell his wife.
“I woke her right out of a nap,” Cliffe said Sept. 30 as he toured the grove of pawpaw trees growing in his backyard on Kendall Lane.
“I was napping in my tent at the time after a rough night’s sleep in the ice-cold tent the previous night,” said Susan Stephens, 55. “So, yeah, Austin woke me up by bursting through the tent and saying ‘Look’ and holding up the plaque.”
Cliffe’s winning pawpaws were judged on a handful of factors including taste, color, texture and pulp-to-seed ratio. The somewhat unknown fruit is native to the mid-Atlantic, specifically to eastern U.S. and tastes like a mix between a banana and a mango.
“And don’t tell Austin this, but I was very surprised because it’s always a hot competition and there are a lot of great pawpaws entered into it,” Stephens said.
The married couple of five years started attending the Ohio festival several years ago as a way to learn more about the pawpaws. Cliffe said after he started growing the fruit in 2014, he wanted to see what the very best pawpaws looked and tasted like, and he also wanted to learn more about growing them and the associated community.
Cliffe said the festival seemed like a good place to go for a fruit grower like himself. Offering pawpaw beers and jam bands, the festival also is an event where Cliffe could learn how to grow different pawpaw varieties.
“So you can learn a lot there, too,” Cliffe said. “It’s almost like a 4-H festival or something like that. And then it’s probably the easiest place to taste the best pawpaw that you can find.”
Cliffe had placed second and third in previous years, but winning against people from the fruit’s more native country – namely Appalachia – was a big deal, Stephens said.
“So we’re doing northern Illinois proud,” Stephens said. “Bringing our pawpaw into their territory and having it chosen as best ... I really think just everything went right for us this time.”
Cliffe’s winning pawpaws were grown from only a couple of branches. Those tree limbs were created when a cultivar from Tollgate Gardens and Nursery in Bellevue, Michigan, was grafted on to rootstock acquired in Paw Paw, Illinois.
“Basically, you take material from one tree that ... has proven to have good quality fruit, and then you graft it onto another rootstock via some way or another,” Cliffe said.
Everything below the graft line is rootstock, and everything above it would genetically be the other tree, Cliffe said.
Cliffe and Stephens said a little luck helped them with the growing season this year.
“Our weather cooperated,” Stephens said. “The ripeness and the right time really worked out. I think we have something to be proud of, but I think northern Illinois has something to be proud of because this is northern Illinois pawpaw.”
The ripeness of the fruit was paramount to their success, the pair said. Like a banana, the taste and texture of a pawpaw can vary wildly depending on ripeness. Some like the fruit green with a slight brown overture, and others prefer to eat them once the skin has turned into a darker, browner color.
Cliffe said it’s hard to describe how a pawpaw tastes because the fruit can have “surprisingly different flavor characteristics.” While tasting a variety of different apples would yield similar flavors and textures, pawpaws can have textures that range from watery to custardy, or firm and fleshy, Cliffe said. Pawpaws also can be sweet like a dessert or exceptionally bitter.
“But a good one typically has sort of like banana-ish texture, maybe more like a custard or pudding, I would say,” Cliffe said. “This is my personal opinion but with maybe slight pear grit and kind of a flavor that’s more or less in between those two things but with notes of like pineapple or mango, or vanilla, cinnamon, other things. There’s a lot going on in these.”
Since winning the Ohio Pawpaw Festival, Cliffe said he’s been enjoying the end of pawpaw season and is focused on finding others with his passion in the area.
“I’ve been riding the high of the win by networking with people in the area that are growing it due to the interest,” he said. “So it’s resulted in a lot of good personal growth I guess in that arena for me.”