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Tejocote: A Mexican Hawthorn Ripe in Winter

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Tejocote: A Mexican Hawthorn Ripe in Winter

Marie Viljoen January 8, 2024

Tejocote. You know it well, or you have never heard of it. There seems to be no middle “I-think-I-know-what-that-is” ground for these plump, yellow crabapple lookalikes with burnished orange cheeks. Tejocote is the fruit of hawthorn trees native to the highlands of Mexico and Central America. Until 2015 it was illegal to import them into the United States, but because the fruit is an integral part of Mexican festivals and holidays in early winter, tejocotes were smuggled into the country to feed communities nostalgic for their essential presence on the Day of the Dead, the Feast of Guadalupe, at Christmas, and at New Year. Because of their unfamiliarity in the US, many cooks are unaware of their heritage and uses. Their sunny appearance in winter should activate some culinary games in the kitchen.

Here are some ideas to get started, and my recipe for tejocote preserves in syrup.

Photography by Marie Viljoen.

Above: Ripe tejocote ranges from yellow to warm orange and red.

Why the import-ban? Like other fruits once forbidden and now permitted Stateside (yuzu and mangosteen spring to mind), tejocote was associated with agricultural pests that could spread disease to domestic crops. It became the most-smuggled fruit into the US. When a farm in California’s Pauma Valley began growing tejocotes to supply local demand, the smuggling stopped. And in 2015, after a six-year review process, the USDA lifted the ban on imported tejocotes because “the application of one or more designated phytosanitary measures” would mitigate any potential risk to local crops.

Above: Raw, the flesh is mild, and very slightly tart.

All hawthorns belong to the Crataegus genus. In Mexico, the name tejocote (derived from the Nahuatl tetl-xocotl, meaning stone fruit, because of its big seeds) refers to all species native to the region (numbering over a dozen). The best known is Crataegus mexicana, for which C. pubescens is a defunct synonym.

While they resemble their crabapple cousins closely (like apples and pears, both are pomes), in flavor tejocotes are significantly less astringent. They taste very mild, with undertones of apple. Their dense, dry flesh is reminiscent of quince, but also of fresh jujube—but less granular than the former, and not as sweet as the latter. Each fruit contains three or more elongated seeds.

Above: Serrato Family Farms began growing tejocote in California in the early 2000s.

In Mexico tejocotes are essential to edible and decorative gifts proffered on the Day of the Dead at the end of October, as well as during the Feast of Guadalupe on December 12th, Christmas, and New Year. Ponche (a hot punch) is synonymous with tejocote, and is made with guava and spices and the slowly cooked tejocote whose aroma and sky-high pectin content (rather than strong flavor, which is non-existent) give the drink a unique texture and scent. Cooked low and slow, sweet tejocote preserves are unctuous—dense, and velvety. Garlands of the fresh fruit are a vivid ornament.

Above: Tejocotes simmering with citrus peel and fresh juniper in my kitchen.
Above: After several slow hours of cooking, the tejocotes are close to candied.

My first tejocote games were conservative. I cooked the fruit slowly in water with sugar, with varying aromatics. The melting but concentrated texture of the cooked fruit was unlike anything I had eaten; reminiscent of quince but smooth, and almost mildly vegetal, like a thick yam, as well as a little slippery (the pectin). The flavor came purely from the seasonings. I make versions of this annually, adding citrus peel for extra aroma, and sometimes even a pinch of salt.

Above: I salt tejocotes overnight, prior to lacto-fermenting them.
Above: Sugar is added the next day, and then water to cover.

That pinch of salt gave me other ideas (my cooking tends to be associative). One of my experiments with the firm fruits is a cultural hybrid, inspired by the Chinese sweet of candied hawthorn, and influenced more than a little by the Hawaiian dried fruit snack known as crack seed (based on Chinese li hung mui, a sweet-and-sour flavor bomb made from ume, Prunus mume). Complicated? Maybe, or not really: The hawthorn candy is chewy and sweet, the crack seed is chewy and tangy, and unripe ume remind me texturally of tejocote.

Above: Tejocote on Day 3 of lacto-fermentation.

To create this hybrid, my interpretive method, presumably in no way authentic, is to lacto-ferment fresh tejocote. I begin with tossing the fruit in a mixture of salt (10 percent of the fruits’ weight) overnight, then adding sugar, a pinch of 5-spice powder, and a spoonful of crushed fresh juniper. Water is added to cover, and the jar holding all this potential stays in cool, dark place, loosely covered (a tight seal would trap released carbon dioxide, making a fermentation bomb). The acerbic tang (the crack seed influence) develops with time, from the fermentation process. When the tejocote taste convincing, after about three weeks, I remove the fruit from the flavorful brine and dry them in a super-low oven, around 150°F. I suspect that air-drying would work, too, and might be even better. The result of this fanciful process is a chewy, sweet, sour, and aromatic tejocote snack.

Above: Tejocote purée mixed with sugar and spicebush, before being dried into pastilles.
Above: Tejocote pastilles.

Membrillo is a cooked quince paste thick enough to be sliced. It is wobbly and spreadable, and its texture is suggestive of fruit pastilles. Because tejocote seem so quince-like, I headed off in that direction, too. Cooking them gently in water, then working them through a foodmill (endlessly, because the fruit is so dense) yields a very thick purée, to which I add a little sugar and a lot of ground spicebush (the dried fruit of Lindera benzoin). Rolled into balls that are flattened with a fork before oven-drying, the result is a gummy-like candy. It’s worth mentioning that in my testing-notes for these delectable pastilles I wrote, “Way too much trouble.” It’s all that food milling. Try it, you’ll see.

Above: Caramelized tejocote.

The most simple way to enjoy these luscious-once-cooked fruits is time-honored: Tejocotes en almibar (in syrup). I add a pinch of salt that creates a foundation for the aromatics, as well as repeated cool-down steps, in the tradition of Eastern European spoon sweets (or pine cone jam), which concentrates the little fruits’ texture.

Tejocotes in Syrup

Prepare these the day before you plan to serve them, since the cooking and cooling can take around 6 hours. Cook the whole fruit slowly and allow its aromatic syrup to concentrate gradually, creating something between a preserve and a fresh-tasting fruit candy. The first few simmerings should be brief, to avoid splitting the skin of the tejocotes, but towards the end of the process the skin is less fragile and you can simmer for longer, each time. For the fresh juniper you could substitute store-bought, or rosemary, or a more traditional cinnamon stick.

  • 30 tejocotes
  • ½ cup sugar
  • Pinch salt
  • Zest from 1 orange
  • Zest from 1 lemon
  • 3 sprigs fresh juniper (eastern red cedar)

Place the tejocotes in a saucepan large enough that they are in a single layer. Add enough water to just cover them. Stir in the sugar, salt, zest, and juniper or rosemary. Bring to a simmer. When bubbles form, turn off the heat and cool, till tepid. (If you let it boil for longer, the skins will rupture; you want them intact). Repeat these steps (simmer, then cool-to-tepid) around six times. Continue the simmer-cool until the cooking liquid is becoming syrupy (if it cools completely, you’ll notice it gelling, due to its high pectin content, which is fine). Serve in a bowl, or transfer to a jar where they will stay good in the fridge for up to two weeks.

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