The New York Times
If you’re supposed to make lemonade when life hands you lemons, what do you do when your divorce, following on the heels of breast cancer and Hurricane Katrina, leaves you with hundreds of your ex’s citrus trees in full fruit?
Isabelle Cossart started picking. And giving fruit away by the bagful — to her New Orleans neighbors, to the vanloads of tourists on the Tours by Isabelle she leads to plantations and the Ninth Ward, to the Girl Scout troops she invited to come pick. Her father arrived from France and made a spreadsheet to try to identify and keep track of the 500 fruit trees her ex-husband planted on the three-plus acres, which she named Organic Orange Orchard. They discovered bitter oranges, ruby red grapefruits, pomelos, Satsumas, kumquats, Meyer lemons, key limes, navel oranges, Louisiana Sweets, pomegranates, plums, avocados, something called a tangor and mystery tree No. 504. A full-time job — but Cossart already had one, thanks.
It turned out that a neighbor in this almost-rural enclave on the Mississippi is married to Ryan Prewitt, the chef de cuisine at Donald Link’s Herbsaint. Cossart invited Link to see her island in “the middle of the wilderness,” she said, pointing to the moat filled with duckweed encircling her six-sided wood home, which is topped with a cupola like some 1980s lighthouse fantasy; instead of a lawn there are countless trees bending with fruit. “He came, and he couldn’t close his mouth.”
Link began buying Cossart’s citrus for all four of his restaurants, which are some of New Orleans’s most popular, using the juice of the purple-fleshed blood oranges for panna cotta; honeyed Satsumas for mojitos; and the ruby red grapefruits for a salad with goat feta and citrus vinaigrette. “Her blood oranges are the best I’ve had,” Link said. Someone in Cossart’syoga class suggested she take her fruit to Hollygrove Market and Farm, a local-produce initiative. A part-time farmer was born.
“I gave up on my nails, because that’s one thing in a farmer’s life: you can’t have nails,” she said, tugging on a dangly pearl earring. “To be a farmer, it gets inside you. I mean, literally! It’s important.”
A few things about Isabelle Cossart. A girlish 58, with long, hennaed hair and a Provençal scarf neatly knotted around her neck, she has a poetic demeanor and a singsongy way of speaking, her French accent barely there after four decades in the United States. She’ll say something like: “The roof flew off the house during Katrina. Everything was ruined,” and make it sound like a love story. When not driving her 15-seat tour van, she tools around in a bumblebee-yellow 2005 Corvette, a replacement for her ’03, which was destroyed by the storm. She has 4 dogs, 3 cats, 5 turtles, 12 chickens and a Tours by Isabelle employee on the second floor. “If it’s not an orchard,” she said of her home, “it’s going to be a zoo.”
And the husband who left Cossart for her best friend? He built a house in the woods behind her, where he lives with the woman and their child. When he cleared the trees separating their properties to plant 500 citrus trees, she put in bamboo — “but not the spreading kind,” she added. He even sued her to be allowed to harvest the fruit from her trees. As Cossart saw it, “The kids were grown, so we couldn’t fight over the kids.”
During the spring and summer, she and her weekend employee trim and feed the trees, using duckweed from the moat to enhance the already-rich soil. (“It’s the topsoil that washed down from the Midwest” before the levees were built, Donald Link said. “Citrus grows extremely well here.”) By Halloween, the Satsumas are ready to be picked. The juicy, easy-to-peel Japanese mandarin has a bright, less-acidic flavor. Tourgoers who sample them from Cossart often order gift baskets at Christmas. “Once people have one, they don’t forget,” she said. The remaining trees yield fruit until Easter, when the last grapefruits are picked.
It’s still a part-time affair. Over the weekend, her helper tells Cossart what’s ready. On Monday, she starts texting her clients what’s available. (“I learned how to text after Katrina from my kids, because the phones weren’t working,” she explained. “I had no idea it’d help my business.”) Tuesdays she texts and picks. Wednesday, she loads up the Tours by Isabelle van — putting a FEMA tarp over the seats to keep them clean — and delivers to Hollygrove (which now distributes to restaurants), Herbsaint, Cochon and Cochon Butcher, and Our School at Blair Grocery, a venture started by a New Yorker to help bring fresh food to the still-deserted Ninth Ward. (She began training with weights so she could lift the 40-pound cases. ) Thursday through Sunday, it’s tour time. “We’ve been fortunate to get good reviews on TripAdvisor,” she said of her main business. “It’s spreading the word. It’s similar to what’s happened with the oranges.”
When I visited Cossart last February, a four-day frost had killed some avocado trees and made it nearly impossible to tell which blood oranges, pomelos or grapefruits had imploded from the freeze. As we walked through the citrus grove, two of her dogs, Moose and Gumbo, gorged on whatever had fallen to the ground, pulp sticking to their whiskers. She wasn’t sure how many trees she would lose, or what the next year would bring. “It’s like what I learned from the breast cancer,” she said. “You learn from the bumps. You come to enjoy every day, every good season.”
We spoke by phone recently; Cossart said that almost everything had come back. In fact, she had more Satsumas than the area’s larger orchards, which allowed her to raise her price a quarter to $1.25 a pound. She’s waiting for a Tulane botanist to try to identify mystery tree No. 504. It still hasn’t borne fruit. Almost three years into her life as an accidental farmer, Cossart sees the trees as family. “Sometimes I think of ‘Gone With the Wind,’ when Rhett Butler says to Scarlett, This is where you get your strength: the red earth of Tara,” she said. “Except for me, the earth is black.”