When was the last time you saw a pawpaw in your local supermarket?
Odds are, never. The tree-grown fruit is native to much of eastern North America, from Ontario down to the southern U.S. But if you’re not familiar with the location of your local grove—or don’t know someone who is—the most you’ve ever seen of a pawpaw is likely that musical number from the Jungle Book.
That’s because, despite the existence of an international supply chain that ensures virtually any fruit can be flown from the furthest reaches of the globe to your neighborhood grocery store, the pawpaw has never successfully been commercialized.
The delicate fruit, which is only in season for about a month in early fall, is also only edible for about 2 to 3 days after picking—meaning the picking, shipping and selling schedule applied to other, broadly-cultivated fruits simply won’t fly.
Researchers have been trying to develop a commercially-viable pawpaw, and while the results have yielded slightly hardier varieties, it will take years before they’ll be able to stand up to mass packing and shipping.
In the meantime, the fruit’s custardy texture and shockingly-tropical flavor—most often compared to a cross between a banana and a mango—is a secret treat for those in the know.
One of those folks is Sean Brock, the Nashville-based chef who’s no stranger to foraged ingredients. As a child, Brock’s family—including his grandmother, Audrey, for whom his newest restaurant is named—would often pick and preserve wild ingredients to stock their pantry.
Each year, the Brock clan would head into the Virginia woods to collect the fruit as it grew ripe. And as the chef began cooking professionally, he would stun his colleagues with samples from his family’s annual harvests.
“It’d blow people’s minds that this tropical-tasting thing came from this hillbilly mountain area,” he told Bon Appetit.
Toward the end of last year, Acid League tapped the chef to help us create our first-ever Proxies collab. The result was Audrey, a celebration of Appalachian native ingredients and flavors.
Pawpaws—which Brock has previously referred to as the “hilbilly mango”—were high on the ingredient wish list. But with the already-ephemeral fruit’s growing season long in the rearview mirror, how would Audrey get that signature tropical flavor?
Liberson is no stranger to the singular charms of the pawpaw; like Brock, Liberson puts foraged Appalachian ingredients at the heart of his brand.
“I was a cook before becoming a vinegar geek, and in a lot of the latter part of my career, I was foraging as a sort of a service to the restaurant. I would kind of divide my time between being a garde-manger and going out and foraging ingredients,” Liberson recalls.
Now, he distills a number of foraged local products—from Virginia berries and ramps to black locust leaves—into a broad array of small-batch vinegars.
Much of their produce, including their stash of pawpaws, is pulled from the Lindera Farms property, which Liberson maintains is “a farm in name only—we are really a nature reserve.”
All of their plants are non-cultivar, and everything is grown without spraying or treatment. “A lot of my supply chain gets really screwed up really fast with, like, the wrong set of weather conditions for a couple days—it's a lot of fun,” he says.
Such as it is with pawpaws, which have been increasingly affected by changing weather conditions in the area, making the yield even more precious.
To capture the pawpaw’s full breadth of flavor, Liberson picks and distills pawpaws into vinegar at varying points in their life cycle.
Early stage pawpaws “have a really high degree of minerality,” with limestone qualities mixed in with banana and sauvignon blanc-like notes, Liberson says.
The middle is characterized by “hyper-complex, fruity elements like mango and passion fruit — like, very, very tropical flavors, which is really weird in Virginia.
“And then towards the end, once they start to sunspot, they develop these like really heady notes of, like butterscotch and caramel. They smell overwhelmingly like brown sugar.”
Blending each of these individual stages together to make the finished vinegar, Liberson says, creates a surprisingly versatile product that takes on elements of whatever it’s paired with.
“Let's say you wanted to do a vinaigrette with pecan oil, right? You're going to get much more of those kind of caramel-y notes. If you were to use it as part of a cocktail with a bourbon, you're going to play off those brown sugar, caramel, butterscotch notes a lot more. If you're using it like white wine vinegar, pairing it with a grassy olive oil, you’ll get a lot more of that minerality. And then, if you wanted to go pastry, or go the Tiki route with cocktails, those options (bring out the) center, more fruity-driven components to it.”
Gee. Any other uses? “Spraying into the eyes of your enemies. It’s super effective.”
The product has since been eagerly adopted by both home cooks and pros (and not, we have to assume, for its self-defense applications).
Food lovers have embraced the ingredient as something that adds a little unexpected sparkle to an otherwise everyday dish (after all, a red wine vinaigrette and a Lindera Farms pawpaw vinaigrette take the exact same amount of time to prep).
The vinegar is also gaining fans outside of Appalachia as a broader audience gets turned on to the power of the pawpaw—and begins to see the vinegar as a valuable vehicle for tasting an otherwise unobtainable product.
“There is kind of an educational component,” he says. “Like, ‘No, we are not making a vinegar from grandfathers named 'papa'. It's actually a fruit. I'm not in charge of the naming, and I am not that macabre.’”
Meanwhile, Appalachian chefs view the vinegar, along with Lindera’s other products, as ways to introduce tough-to-source local ingredients to their diners.
So it went with Brock, a longtime fan of Lindera’s vinegars, who shot Liberson a text to the general effect of “Doing this thing with Acid League, you in, y/n?” during the Proxies development process.
“Sean has a really unique draw to ingredients that are coming from around Appalachia in particular. We have that in common,” he says.
Liberson, like Brock, has also quit drinking, which endeared him further to the idea of lending a hand to the creation of a wine alternative.
Thanks to his contribution, pawpaws are a crucial part of the fabric of Appalachian flavor that Brock and Proxies maker Devin Campbell wove from local ingredients to create Audrey.
Dried elderberries create a rounded and complex base with plums, blueberries, cherries, and syrah grapes, while botanicals like pine, black malva, ginseng and valerian add botanical backbone.
And at the heart: A bloom of bright, tropical pawpaw that will offer a rare taste of a faraway place—or, at the very least, keep you going until next September.