A small band of dedicated orchardists is bringing one of Australia’s most spectacular native foods into the spotlight.

Story By David Hancock

Greatly prized by Aboriginal people and the early settlers of northern New South Wales and southern Queensland, fingerlimes are beginning to strike a chord with chefs in restaurants across the nation. Promoted as “citrus caviar”, the long, finger-like fruit contains small, round pearls of tangy pulp that burst in the mouth; the fruit can be pink, green, yellow or red and is used to flavour, or accompany, just about any dish or drink. One of the things chefs like about the small fingerlime pearls is that they provide an unexpected explosion of flavour to a dish.
Based at Bangalow, in northern New South Wales, Sheryl Rennie and Georgie MacDougall are partners in the Wild Fingerlime Group that sells the fruit overseas and throughout Australia. Sheryl says the fruit is probably better known in Europe where 80 percent of production goes; last year, less than 50 growers produced 10 tonnes of fingerlimes, valued at about $500,000.
Although native fingerlimes were once commonly found along the east coast and hinterland from south of Ballina, NSW, to Mount Tamborine in Queensland, many were destroyed when the country was settled and cleared for farming by Europeans. Today, the largest varieties occur in the rainforests around Dunoon, Jiggi and Lismore.
Prior to settlement, fingerlimes provided Aboriginal people with food high in vitamin C; some early settlers recognised its potential in battling scurvy, while many used hardy fingerlime wood for tool handles.
Judy Viola, a citrus nursery owner at Bangalow, has a “passionate obsession” with the unique plant. She grew some of the first cultivars for orchardists in 1989, budding up to 90 wild varieties with citrus rootstock to produce cultivars suitable for commercial farming.
“Fingerlimes are something I cannot leave alone,” she says. “The trees are like different people – dense, sparse, weepy, wiry and very strong. There is quite a variation in wild trees and the colour of the fruit and pearls. They produce the most unique fruit with one of the best colour ranges in the world. Scientists suspect they have been around for millions of years and other citrus could be derived from them.
Many fingerlime growers are husband-and-wife teams with between 100 and 300 trees, while there are several large orchards with up to 2000 trees under cultivation. Sheryl Rennie has been growing native foods for 20 years, and fingerlimes for 15. She says the plant takes up to five years to produce fruit and prefers the climate around northern New South Wales and southern Queensland, although they are grown as far north as the Atherton Tableland, and in the southwest of Western Australia. “Our main issue is getting people to grow the right varieties,” she says. “There are about six good varieties that are suitable for export and their features are good skin, tasty pulp and different colours.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #83

Outback Magazine: June/July 2012