Finger Limes: Pearls of the Forest

14 Sep 2017

Author: Richard Cornish

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After decades perfecting the farming of tiny native Australian finger limes in a rainforest clearing a farmer trod the streets of Melbourne and Sydney to bring the native fruit to the best restaurants in Australia and now the world.
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Fine beads of pale green fruit roll around the tongue like the finest caviar. Smooth and delicate, they are packed with clean tasting, refreshing juice, and pop in the mouth, releasing the aroma of the ripest citrus. This is finger lime, the fruit of a tree native to the subtropical rainforests of the Eastern Australian coast. About the size and shape of your thumb, they have a thin skin, like fine leather, surrounding the flesh. Made up mostly of tiny, fruit filled sacs, or vesicles, the Australian finger lime is an indigenous fruit that is now taking centre stage on menus in the world’s best restaurants, both down under and across the globe.

One of the pioneers who took this delicious, but little known fruit from the tropics to top chefs in the big cities is Ian Douglas, along with his wife Margie. He is the founder and director of the Lime Caviar Company Pty Ltd. Today they sell fresh and frozen finger lime products across Australia and around the world. 

Discovering lime caviar 

Their story started 35 years ago, when this retired lawyer found a beautiful block of land. Perched on a cleared rise, it lies in the forest on the mountainous border country between the states of Queensland and New South Wales. “We arrived in the area about the time when the finger lime was just being considered to be suitable to be a commercial crop,” he says. The Douglas family farm seemed to be the perfect place, as it is surrounded by native forest, sharing a boundary with a National Park.

Douglas explains that the finger lime (Microcitrus australasica) grows naturally in the forest in the region; and that there are scores of different varieties, some better suited to domestication than others. 

“It took us a good seven years to learn how to grow them,” Douglas says. “They suffer easily from wind damage, so we had to learn how to protect them from that,” he says. 

Over this period of trial and error they worked out which varieties grew well on their farm. They began producing plump, flavoursome fruit that would travel well to restaurants over a 1000 km away in another part of Australia. During this time they planted over 7000 trees, whilst removing and destroying another 2000 due to their poor performance. 

“I think we got it about right,” says Douglas in an understated manner. “The really hard thing was trying to market the finger limes!”


Finger on the culinary pulse 

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Originally the Douglas family used agents to sell their limes. However, they didn’t share Ian’s sense of urgency and the limes were sometimes left languishing in refrigerators for weeks.

“We travelled down to Melbourne with a box of finger limes and knocked on the doors of the best restaurants in Melbourne,” says Douglas. One of his first customers, back in the early 2000s, was award winning chef Adam De Silva, co-owner of Coda and Tonka restaurants in central Melbourne. 

“When I first saw them I thought they were an amazing natural ingredient that added so much flavour and zing. Those little beads,” says De Silva. “We still use them on oysters and with salads,” he says. “We use them at Tonka,” he says in reference to his Indian restaurant, “with prawns that have been grilled and served with a curry sauce – the limes balance the richness of the coconut in the sauce”. 

The next restaurant on Douglas’s hit list was Attica. This cutting edge restaurant rated number 32 in World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2017. Chef Ben Shewry fell in love with the finger limes, the sense of simplicity and the overt freshness they bring to a dish. He has used finger limes in such dishes as “pearl oyster meat served with the richness of lime butter, the crispness of shaved radish, the earthy smokiness of leek ash with the fresh and fine beads of finger lime”. 

Lime Caviar finger limes were soon being used in the menu in modern Italian restaurant Da Noi, and then Brae. Brae is a modern Australian restaurant housed in an old homestead overlooking sheep grazing country, several hours west of Melbourne. Rated 44th in World’s 50 Best Restaurants, here the tiny pearls inside the finger lime have been served dabbed on the outside of raw crabmeat, making for a zingy finish to an umami rich dish. In Sydney, the Lime Caviar finger limes have been popular with prestigious restaurants such as Flying Fish, Catalina, The Bridge Room and Banksii Vermouth Bar and Bistro, in the new Barangaroo development.

“What I was able to do was give chefs what they wanted, when they wanted,” says Douglas. A chef would place an order, Douglas would have the order picked and packed in very special packaging that protects the delicate skin. The order would be delivered to their door the following day.
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Lime caviar popping into international markets

The lessons learned in careful hand harvest and precision packaging sees Lime Caviar finger limes now exported fresh and frozen around the globe. “We are producing the best quality finger limes right,” says Douglas proudly. “This is where they come from and this is where they grow best.” He and other quality growers have planted enough trees to not only supply Australia but also the rest of the world. 

“We were looking for more markets, and a fruit importer in the Netherlands was looking for a supplier,” he says. “Now our finger limes are off the tree and into European restaurants in a matter of days.” A distributor in Lyon, France, now sees Lime Caviar appreciated in France, with it making the menu of Restaurant Paul Bocuse. “We pick, pack, and send via Brisbane airport in Styrofoam boxes under 10 degrees Celcius,” says Douglas. 

In Hong Kong, chef Felipe Lopez of Buenos Aires Polo Club is a big fan of Australian finger limes. “They have a slightly tart but sweet taste that pairs perfectly with seafood,” says the chef. He uses finger lime caviar as a fresh counterpoint in his “Hokkaido scallop carpaccio, frisée salad, honey beans and fried quinoa”.

While the season for Australian finger limes is January to June, Lime Caviar is extending that season with a pre peeled and frozen lime caviar product. Flash frozen, packed in a tub and kept in the freezer, it is ready to use and has excellent shelf life. The product will be available for export from Australia early in 2018.

“They still have that extraordinary, fresh popping sensation in the mouth and add that something extra to every dish they are served with,” says Douglas. “They are delicious.”

Find out more about Lime Caviar.