Feijoas are a nostalgic and beloved fruit, connecting continents and rich in culture

Feijoas are a nostalgic and beloved fruit, connecting continents and rich in culture
  • PublishedApril 7, 2024

They’re small, green and relatively unobtrusive, but few fruits have the devoted, nostalgia-filled following of the feijoa.

Native to South America, the humble feijoa has made its way from Brazil and Argentina to the French Riviera, California, Australia and New Zealand, where they’re almost “a national identity fruit”.

“Feijoas are hugely popular here in New Zealand. Everyone knows what a feijoa is,” Kate Evans, author of Feijoa: A Story of Obsession and Belonging, told ABC Radio Canberra.

Indeed, in her research for the book, she met many a feijoa obsessive in all corners of the earth.

“It’s still slightly mysterious to me, I think — exactly why New Zealand [loves them] and not other places, because they’re delicious and amazing,” Ms Evans says.

“I’ve done a number of trips to different places to trace the feijoa story … and also to meet other feijoa obsessives like myself, and to learn what the feijoa means to people in different countries.”

Ms Evans has judged a feijoa desserts competition at the Festival of the Feijoa in Colombia, and she’s hunted down the oldest feijoa trees in Cannes and Ventimiglia.

In Brazil, she visited Invernada dos Negros, a traditional community that has developed a deep relationship with the feijoa over generations. While there, she learned how the feijoa is tied to slavery, and medicine, and history.

“This is not just about the feijoa, but part of how our culture, and our history, has been stolen from us,” one woman she met said.

“We lost that knowledge. But we still have the feijoa.”

A woman in a cap in among feijoa trees
Kate Evans collecting feijoas in the wild feijoa forests of southern Brazil.(Supplied: Kate Evans)

Stories like these changed the way Ms Evans views feijoas. They’re a nostalgic fruit — she recalls sitting on her driveway with her sisters during feijoa season, which starts in Autumn and goes until June, and eating as many feijoas as they could.

But they also represent connection.

“I’ve spent 10 years being the mad feijoa lady, and it’s made me an author and has taken me on all these journeys around the world,” Ms Evans says.

“And now, yes, it reminds me of home and growing up and being a child, but it also now connects me to all of these people that I’ve met in Brazil and Uruguay and Colombia and France, in Australia and Berlin.

“And now it’s both this kind of home fruit, and it’s also like a little green thread connecting me to all of these other places around the world.”

Sharing the love

Just like a cup of sugar loaned to a neighbour, the feijoa is often gifted, not bought.

“I think part of the reason for that [popularity in New Zealand] is that we don’t buy them — we’re gifted them,” Ms Evans explains.

“If you want feijoas you’re either growing them in your garden, or your neighbour has one and you go and ask them if you can have some. Or your neighbour has way too many and they leave them in a box out on the street and you can help yourself. Or somebody takes them to work and there’s massive bags of them in the office and people help themselves.

“We don’t really like to pay for them, but because of that they enhance community in a way — because you need to know your neighbours in order to get hold of some feijoas.”

Kate Evans feijoa comp Colombia
Kate Evans judging a feijoa competition in Colombia in 2019.(Supplied: Kate Evans)

Despite this, Ms Evans freely admits to buying a feijoa at the Fyshwick Markets for $3 several years ago, just to sample that taste of home — and says it was “100 per cent worth it”.

“It had that emotional effect for me,” she reflects.

“They’re so fragrant, like they have a very powerful smell. And one of the things I learned while researching the book is that the smell centre in our brain is really close to the memory centre in our brain. Nothing can trigger memories, especially childhood memories, like smell. 

“That’s partly why, when a New Zealander living in Australia finally gets hold of a feijoa and cuts it open, sometimes they’ll cry, or they’ll feel really homesick.” 

Another reason for their popularity in New Zealand could be due to their hardiness — they grow under conditions other plants would not tolerate. They cope with frost well, and don’t mind the heat in summer.

“I think there’s something about their biology that just really suits us in New Zealand,” Ms Evans laughs.

“I mean, they grow very well. They’re easy to grow. I think they’re quite easy to grow in Canberra too, from what I hear.

“They don’t require too much care — you can have one in the corner. Even if you’ve got a small suburban garden you can grow one in there and they provide huge amounts of fruit. One tree will really feed you for a season.”

And Ms Evans is right — feijoas do grow well in Canberra.

In fact, the nation’s capital is home to about 100,000 of them, thanks to an old government policy.

“In the days when you got your 40 free shrubs and 10 free trees when you arrived in Canberra, the government nursery pushed feijoas heavily because they’re one of the few trees that tolerate heavy acid clay, which is what Canberra has everywhere,” Canberra-based feijoa expert Mark O’Connor says.

Dozens of small green fruits in a box, feijoas are the shape of an AFL football and the size on an egg
Feijoa fruits are ripe and ready to eat when they fall from the tree naturally.(ABC News: Matilda Marozzi)

“They were seen as very drought-hardy, and indeed they get through droughts very well, but you won’t get fruit if you don’t water them in a drought. They will survive it, but they won’t be a good orchard tree without some water.”

If you don’t have a feijoa tree in your backyard, Mr O’Connor recommends planting grafted trees rather than seedlings, to ensure they fruit well. Then, with a little bit of mulch and some fertiliser, you’ll have more feijoas than you know what to do with.

“They’re just this wonderful tree that drops Christmas-like presents — you know, you come out in the morning and there they are, delivered on the ground,” he says.

So if the feijoa grows so easily here and is such a hardy, fruitful tree, why do they not enjoy the same cult following as in New Zealand?

With knowledge comes good fruit

Mr O’Connor, who also established the Canberra Feijoa Project at the Lindsay Pryor National Arboretum a decade ago, thinks that one barrier to the feijoa’s popularity in Canberra could be because they’re not readily available at the supermarket.

“There is the problem of where can you buy them in Australia,” Mr O’Connor says.

“They are being passed around because the conventional shops haven’t yet learned to stock them. We’ve paid off so many social debts with them — we’re invited out to dinner so often by New Zealanders who are starving for feijoas.”

There’s also the problem of not really knowing how to treat them, or eat them.

“If you go into the supermarket, you’ll find pears being sold which don’t smell good and don’t have much taste,” Mr O’Connor says. 

“But our population knows that what you do with pears is you take them home, you put them in a fruit bowl. And after about a week, they suddenly start to smell like pears. And that says you’ve got one or two days to eat them. 

“Or with a banana, it depends very much on temperature. In winter, you might store a banana for two or three weeks. But there will be a period of you know, up to a week when it’s ripe and ready to eat.

“So there’s all that sort of knowledge that people have with other fruit. And the problem is to get them to have that knowledge for a new fruit.”

The good news is that feijoas are just as simple to eat as they are to grow.

“Feijoa have tended to be my favourite because they give you such good reward. They bear heavily. The fruit is delicious,” Mr O’Connor says. 

“The beauty of it is that feijoas come with a slight mini crunch from the seeds. They’re theoretically the perfect fruit.

“They’re like a strawberry in that they’re so sweet, you can eat them skin and all, every part of the fruit is edible. There’s no stone, no pip, no seed, and even an edible skin.”

Like pears, feijoas go on ripening after they’re picked, and there’s an optimum three or four days when they’re at their peak to eat.

“You tell it by the smell, they have this delicious smell when they’re ripe, and they should be just slightly soft,” Mr O’Connor says.

“And the other thing to do is cut it through the middle, and then you’ll see a cross section that looks a bit like a Celtic cross, with the seeds in a pattern and translucent flesh around them. If that turns more white towards the skin, then that’s a perfectly ripe feijoa.

“I mean, it’s very simple, really. But when people don’t have that knowledge it doesn’t get eaten, or is left to spoil.”

a red flower on a green plant
The feijoa tree’s flowers are Christmas colour and produce no nectar. “They are pollinated by birds that come to eat the petals,” Mr O’Connor explains.(Unsplash: Kostiantyn Vierkieiev)

Ms Evans likes to cut her feijoas in half and spoon them out, or bite right into them, just as she did when she was a child.

But feijoas can also be baked into muffins, churned into ice-cream, diced into a chutney, baked into a crumble, even distilled into wine.

“One of my favourite things to do is something called a feijoa fizz,” Ms Evans adds.

“And I love it because you’re also utilising a waste product. So once you’ve eaten your feijoas and you’ve got 20 skins sitting there on the beach, you can pack those skins into a jar with some sugar and some water and then you make sure that all the feijoa skins are pushed down under the water — you can use like a smaller jar to do that, or a stone.

“And then you leave that there for like three days and it ferments and makes this delicious kind of slightly fermented drink called feijoa fizz, and it’s really delicious.

“There’s really nothing else that tastes like them.”

SOURCE: ABCNEWS

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