Friday, August 29, 2014

A Potted History of Kiwi Fruit.

I do not believe I have given over any space at all, in almost nine years of blogging, to kiwi fruit, so today is its day in the limelight.

As I am sure you know, the other common name for this fruit is Chinese Gooseberry, which is both enlightening and confusing: the plant is in fact a native of China, but it is not at all related to the gooseberry. Botanically speaking, the fruit is the berry of a vine from the genus Actinidia, a number cultivars of which are sold in fruit shops around the world, the best-known being the brown fuzzy A. deliciosa,  with A.chinensisi  also being popular. The fruit is, of course, now indelibly associated with New Zealand, and the explanation of its change in nationality is the main thing I want to discuss today.

According to the horticulture experts at Purdue University in Indiana, although it originated in China, the Chinese (who are reputed to eat every part of the duck apart from its quack) were not particularly fond of the fruit, ‘regarding it mainly as a tonic for growing children and for women after childbirth,’ and for certain medicinal purposes.

One of the early Westerners to taste the fruit and report on it was the Iowan Lutheran Missionary George Oliver Lillegard, who mentioned the fruit in a letter to his mother from Hankow, China, in 1921. He refers to it by its Chinese name yang tao, which apparently translates as ‘goat peach’ (or sun peach or strawberry peach):

“I’ve tasted four new fruits and am fond of them all. There are the loquats … pomelo, “Yang-tao,” and persimmons. …”Yang-tao” is a Chinese fruit and is delicious … it has a banana and gooseberry flavour combined. The canned fruit is so much like gooseberries, that I cannot detect the difference. I think the raw fruit has more banana taste tho.”
(From: Called According to his Purpose, by Deborah Blumer, 2103)

So, when did the yang-tao arrive in New Zealand? Seeds were taken to the country in 1904 by a prominent New Zealand educationist, Mary Isabel Fraser, the principal of the highly respected Wanganui Girls’ College. She had obtained the seeds on a visit to China to study the missionary school system there. The seeds were planted in Wanganui and the first fruits were cropped in about 1910.

The New Zealand newspapers of the 1920’s reported with interest the progress in cultivation of the fruit throughout the country. In 1921, the NZ Press of 28 November noted that it was ‘now being grown successfully in Feilding.’ By 1928-9 although it was still a ‘new fruit’, the commercial possibilities were being discussed, and by 1935 it was being hailed as a ‘profitable crop … [which is] in season when there are few other small fruits on the market.’

When it became clear that commercial production of the Chinese Gooseberry was a success, growers looked to the export market. A re-branding was clearly necessary to establish ownership of the market, as a ‘Chinese’ fruit would be difficult to promote as a New Zealand crop. The name melonette – from a similarity in flavour to the big fruit – was briefly considered, but ‘melons’ were subject to an import tax the USA, so some distancing from that particular fruit was necessary. Likewise, ‘berries’ attracted an import tax, so that part of the name needed to be avoided too.

It is said that the name ‘kiwi fruit’ was finally decided upon in1959, after much industry discussion, because the small brown furry fruit resembled the small brown native bird called in the Maori tongue – kiwi. The Canberra Times of 27 August 1978 however presented another theory as to the origin of the name –one which also had relevance for the lucrative US market:

A few years ago a New Zealander exporting Chinese Gooseberries was warned by his US agent that they were not selling well because Americans thought they must be produce
of Red China." Sell them as Kiwi fruit, then", cabled the New Zealander, on the spur of the moment.

Names do matter, of course. I understand that the small soft, furry, brown fruit when first introduced to France was sold (and perhaps still is?) under the name souris végétales, or ‘vegetable mice,’ which for some potential buyers may be a little off-putting.

From its new home in New Zealand, the fruit continued its overseas journey, gradually becoming cheaper and more popular elsewhere – and in some areas, locally-grown. In 1953, Britain received its first imports from New Zealand. By the mid-1960’s it was well known in the UK, as well as in the US and Australia, although it was another decade or so before it moved from being a luxury to an ordinary every-day product.

And finally, a small selection of early recipes for kiwi fruit (‘early’ being a relative term in culinary history!)

Chinese Gooseberry Jam.
Peel and weigh the fruit, cover with water and boil till soft. Then add 1 lb. of sugar to every 1 lb. of fruit and boil for about 1 hour.
New Zealand Herald,  22 April 1939

Chinese Gooseberry Ice-Cream
6oz. castor sugar                                 2 egg-yolks
6 ¼ oz. boiling water                          ¼ pint cream
About 3 teaspoons lemon juice
½ pint Chinese Gooseberry  puree (made by sieving about 6 peeled fruit)
Place sugar and water in a thick saucepan; stir over gentle heat until sugar has dissolved. Bring to boil and boil gently 7 to 10 minutes, and allow syrup to cool slightly. Beat in egg-yolks and puree. Stir constantly over gentle heat about 5 minutes or until mixture thickens slightly; do not boil. Pour into freezer trays and cool before freezing. When partially set, stir in whipped cream and lemon juice. Freeze until solid.
The Australian Women's Weekly, 9 November 1966

Chinese Gooseberry Chutney
INGREDIENTS : 1 ½ lb Chinese gooseberries, peeled and cut up,  3 medium-sized grated onions, 1 large banana, sliced, 2 lemons, peeled and cut into cubes, 1 small cup sultanas or raisins, 1 teaspoon ground ginger, ¼ lib preserved ginger, 1 large cup brown sugar, 1 dessertspoon (or a little less) salt, ½  teaspoon pepper, 1 large cup vinegar.
Put all ingredients into a saucepan, add the vinegar (it should just cover, so add more if necessary) and  simmer, about 1 ½ hours. Mash with a potato masher, do not strain through a colander. When cool, bottle and cork well.

The Argus (Melbourne) 1 July 1955


Anne said...

Fascinating history of the fruit. Thank you Janet. We harvested 40kg of kiwi fruit this year, from just 2 female plants. I've been wondering what to make with what's left and that kiwi chutney sounds just the thing. Hopefully the addition of lemons will stop the 'browning' that happens to the fruit when it is cooked.

Mantelli said...

A friend of mine who lives and teaches in China has told me that the name there translates as "monkey peach".