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THERE is an aroma in the air now, when you drive around Balik Pulau, Penang with your car windows down. It's hot but breezy, so you'll get a whiff of the thousands of durian in the hills on the "back of the island" that have been dropping like crazy this bumper crop year.
Things have been slow to change in this part of the island demarcated for agriculture. The durian season however brings hordes of visitors into this neck of the woods, and traders set up bamboo or wooden stalls to sell their durians by the roadside.
There's ang heh (red shrimp which is Penang's very own "designer" variety), or chee (black thorn, which was the top prize winner last year), cheh poay (green skin), cheh poay 15 (green skin 15), lao khun poh (named after a farmer), ang bak (red flesh), hor lor (gourd), siao hong (little red), kapri or kapilik (if the "r" can't be pronounced), kunyit, ling feng jiao (named after the actress) and so on. There's also another whole host of number combinations from D11 to D604.
The beauty of Penang durians is the varieties - supposedly, around 100 - that you can get on one small island.
Balik Pulau's farmers started bud grafting to come up with "designer durians" in the 1970s. After almost 50 years of branded pips however, there is now a growing appreciation for kampong durians, or what are the original durian trees of Balik Pulau grown from seeds in the 1950s.
The durians would usually be smallish and odd-shaped - which traders will hardly ever offer to you unless you point to the pile and ask: "So what are those durians?" This season, three or five will go for RM10 (S$3.60), depending on the size.
Consumers usually turn their noses up at the kampong durian because the flesh is thin and the seeds large. So it doesn't yield very much "volume" in relation to what you pay for them, even though cheap, but oh, the flavour!
Some farmers are now touting their unique flavour and quirky character, especially the heady alcoholic bitterness that can only come from old trees.
"The bitterness comes from the fact that the durian trees are about 30 years old or more," says Eric Chong, who bought an 18-acre (7.3-hectare) farm in 2008 and is practising sustainable farming at the plantation that he's renamed Green Acres. Since learning how to run the farm from the previous owner who's now still taking care of it, he has discovered the complex flavours of these "original" durians.
"I like them for the flavour because they're all so different, and some even taste like wine," he describes. "Every single kampong durian is totally different, while (fruit from) grafted trees come from one stock, so they taste the same. The only difference is the age. The older designer durians also have a fuller range of flavour and taste like wine," he explains.
The durian isn't so much defined by its "brand" but by its age. You could have a musang king (mao shan wang) which is 15 years old in Penang, and it won't taste like a musang king from Kelantan or Pahang, where the durian type is originally from, and where the trees are at least 30 years old.
"The musang king in Penang is really quite different compared to the original ones from the mainland," points out Mr Chong. Out of the 400 plus trees on his hilly farm that goes up to 280m above sea level, probably about half of them are original trees.
"You wouldn't graft an old tree which is 20m to 30m high, it doesn't make sense. The trees that are bud-grafted are usually less than 20 years old," he explains.
The reason is there needs to be new limbs with new buds on the lower part of the tree. The bark of another tree variety is then wrapped around the tree buds, and then you get your designer durian.
Almost every "commercial" durian farm has the designer brands mainly because these will fetch higher prices in the market, but some such as Choy Kuan Hoy, known as "Uncle Choy" for the sage look he's sporting, has started advocating the humble kampong durian.
He's managing a friend's farm in Titi Serong, Balik Pulau this year. Head up the one road after Sacred Heart school and church, and follow the sign to "Okay Jungle Durians". "We want to re-introduce kampong durians because the beauty is that they have really good flavours. If you want something natural and genuine, then it's the kampong durian," he declares, trotting out the small ang heh (red prawn) durians which are so small that sometimes one durian contains only one pip.
About half of the 400 plus trees in the farm that he's managing are old kampong durian trees, and Uncle Choy is also using organic practices on the farm, cutting out the use of pesticides and non-organic fertilisers. He sells his kampong durians in a shed beside a stream, while those who want the "branded" durians walk a bit up a slope to the former plantation house and eat them at an open porch.
Kampung durians could be the "endangered" trees, in fact, as no one plants them anymore, says Green Acres' Mr Chong. Hopefully though, with increased awareness and growing appreciation of their fruits' unique flavours, more farmers will leave the old trees alone. They can't graft them, but they certainly don't have to cut them down.
"Some of the old trees are still giving a lot of fruit," declares Mr Chong. Cutting down the use of pesticides and non-organic fertiliser could be one way of prolonging the fruit-bearing lives of the trees, he feels.
Chang Teik Seng of Bao Sheng Durian Farm concurs, since he was one of the first commercial planters to switch to organic farming. "I know that aged trees give better fruit so my main aim is to look after my trees well, so that they continue fruiting after 30, 40 years and beyond."
"And I'm not in the exporting business. I'd rather import the people to come here and taste the flavours of our Penang varieties," he points out. All his 200 plus trees are grafted and yield branded varieties; his father was one of the pioneers who started bud-grafting their trees in the 1970s.
It's good news that farmers are slowly switching to more environmentally responsible ways of farming. Coupled with a growing appreciation for kampong durians, durian tasting in Penang is all about the kor cha bee, or heirloom flavour, with an old world feel and pace that's harder to find in other states of Malaysia intent on commercialising the durian trade.
READ MORE: Durian education and feasts in Balik Pulau