Citrusy aroma’: how feijoas baffled a New Zealand immigrant – and polarise a nation
When Hania Żądło, a new arrival in New Zealand, asked an innocent question about an unfamiliar fruit, she was not to know that she was undermining a national treasure.
As a registered nurse, Żądło and her husband, an anaesthetic technician, had both been granted “critical purpose” visas to take up jobs at Dunedin hospital. After landing in Auckland from the UK in late March, they were sent with their two children to the Crowne Plaza hotel for two weeks’ mandatory quarantine.
On day seven, the paper bag delivered to their door with that day’s lunch contained an oval-shaped, grass-green fruit. It looked like a mini-avocado, Żądło thought, but it smelled citric, almost floral. “I was very happy to get something different,” she says, from quarantine still. “But I had no idea what to do with it.”
Żądło turned to the New Zealand hotel quarantine Facebook group, where 13,000 people share tips on travelling to New Zealand through the pandemic. With the majority of members citizens, Polish-born Żądło framed her question with appropriate deference.
“I hope I won’t offend anyone here with this post,” she wrote, beneath a photo, “but … what fruit is this and how do you eat it?”
Żądło realised her faux pas within minutes as her post was flooded with hundreds of replies. Her “mini-avocado”, she was told again and again, was a feijoa – and “it appears to be a massive thing here”, Żądło marvels.
The feijoa is a kind of guava that grows on small trees of the myrtle family, pronounced “fey-oa” in its native South America and “fee-jo-ah” in New Zealand, where it is as essential to the culture as the kiwifruit (itself Chinese).
Żądło’s question piqued the suspicion of the Facebook group’s self-appointed gatekeepers as a failed test of nationhood. “Are you a Kiwi? It’s a quintessential kiwi fruit …” wrote one. “Sad that a New Zealander doesn’t know a feijoa! How is this even possible?” fished another.
One was more blunt: “If you don’t know what feijoas are, I have to wonder which category you are entering New Zealand under?”
As anyone from Aotearoa will tell you, feijoas are typically eaten like kiwifruit, cut in half and scooped out with a spoon – though they are also used widely as a filling or flavour in baking, confectionery, chutneys and jams, curries, ice-cream and even alcohol.
But the distinctive taste is polarising, even of New Zealanders. “Like pears, guavas and pineapples had a weird baby,” ventured one commenter, responding to Żądło. “Like you accidentally sprayed your perfume in your mouth,” wrote another in disgust. It is most often likened to soap – by detractors and fans alike.
Żądło describes it as somewhat sour, with a “bouquet of fresh, citrusy aroma” and soft flesh that turned gritty, like a pear, closer towards the skin. “The taste is very distinct – it hit my palate immediately,” she says. One of her Facebook correspondents put it this way: “They are THE MOST DELICIOUS FRUIT IN THE WORLD!!!!”
The description-defying flavour means that people who do like feijoas tend to be zealous about them – “almost as if this fruit is some kind of national treasure,” says Żądło.
Within New Zealand, there is a countdown to the start of the season, around April. This year increased rainfall meant it started a month early, with Gisborne grower David Hansen giving this update to Radio New Zealand in early March: “Fruit size is good. Flavours are good. Good sugar levels. So, it’s looking really good.”
With the trees common in private gardens and usually highly productive, for two to three months of the year feijoas are so plentiful as to be given away, in bulging carrier bags and buckets left at the side of the road. Kate Evans, a journalist working on a book about feijoas, has pointed to this as evidence of their being “part of the New Zealand identity”. She says: “There’s something really democratic about them.”
But the brevity of the season – and their fleeting window of ripeness – adds to the urgency to make the most of it: by July, the season is over for another year.
The hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders based overseas can only look on with longing. Despite efforts to export them around the world, feijoas are only sparsely available in Australia and virtually unheard of elsewhere – meaning expat Kiwis often make a point of filling their boots on trips home.
“They just don’t travel very well,” says Sariah Wilson of Heather’s Feijoas, a Hawke’s Bay farm that recently acquired its first London stockist on top of four others outside in New Zealand in Hong Kong, Miami, Brisbane and Perth. But “logistically, it’s just quite hard to do”, she says.
“Really, feijoas are so unknown around the world, even if you look up ‘rare fruit’ online, feijoas just don’t come up – they are even rarer than the rarest fruit. For us in New Zealand, we take it for granted, but the rest of the world has never even heard of them.”
For those prevented from returning by the pandemic, Żądło’s post prompted wistful reminiscences of back yard trees and heaped buckets – not to mention, unabashed envy. “It’s been 10 long years …” wrote one expat. “I would give my teeth to have that feijoa,” said another frankly.
Żądło – the strong inference was – did not know how lucky she was. But what did this incoming New Zealander make of its favourite, and most contentious, fruit?
Żądło says that her stomach can be sometimes sensitive to exotic fruits: “When I tried lychee fruit, I was physically sick.” Plus, of the two feijoas she tasted, the riper one had the undeniable taste of soap.
And yet, Żądło says – “I really enjoyed them.” She is even hoping to plant her own tree.