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Image: Tina Tiller
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BooksMarch 3, 2024

A short history of my love affair with feijoas

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

An excerpt from Kate Evans’ highly anticipated book that follows the history of, and New Zealand’s intense relationship with, the feijoa.

The scent comes first, when you sink your knife – or your teeth – into a feijoa’s skin. It is zingy, heady, a burst of bright perfumed flavour unlike any other. In New Zealand, the traditional method is to scoop out the creamy-clear insides with a teaspoon and discard the skins, though in other parts of the world people simply eat them whole. In the centre, the flesh is translucent and jelly-like where the tiny seeds hang in spiralled suspension. Closer to the skin, it is opaque and slightly gritty. Some have compared the taste to a mixture of pineapples and strawberries, but really, the flavour is something all its own. In the United States, where feijoas are called pineapple guavas, a 1912 newspaper article declared, “he who drinks beer, thinks beer. But he who eats pineapple guava thinks of pineapple, raspberries, and banana, all at once.”

My love affair with feijoas began with the walk home from school on shortening April afternoons, the light as crisp as a Granny Smith apple. My sisters and I would cast off our school bags and sit under the feijoa tree on our rural gravel driveway, armed with a spoon and a knife – or sometimes just our teeth. We were only allowed one chocolate egg at Easter, but we could eat as many of these sweet green orbs as we wanted. 

My Australian-born mother couldn’t stand the taste, but she would happily gather buckets of them for the rest of us when she went up to the orchard to feed the chickens. The plum, apple, lemon and guava trees were enclosed from the wind – and the cows – in a protective hedge of seedling feijoas. They produced fruit that was very variable in size, shape and quality, and most we just let rot into the grass. If you stood on one by accident, the liquified insides squirted out between your bare toes (we were always barefoot). Some New Zealanders, I was later told, call feijoas “lawnmower fruit”, because as kids mowing lawns for pocket money they would be instructed to simply run over the fallen feijoas, puréeing hundreds into a sticky, pungent mess. 

At home with Amalia and Indigo in Raglan, New Zealand (Photo: Lottie Hedley)

At our place at Leigh, on the still-rural border of Auckland and Northland, the best fruit came from Dad’s specimen tree on the driveway. By the time Monica and I were teenagers, and Tessa at primary school, it produced enough large, delicious feijoas to last most of the season. Usually, we could keep up with that tree just by eating them fresh, and my father and I shared a particular love of feijoas on our muesli. He experimented with making feijoa ice cream (delicious), and later, feijoa wine (not so much). 

Feijoas reeled me in as a child, and I think they did it on purpose. The plant’s whole strategy – honed over millions of years of evolution – is to attract animals to their juicy, tasty fruit, in the hope we will spread their seeds far and wide. Humans might think that in domesticating plants we have turned them to our own ends, but as Michael Pollan writes in The Botany of Desire, the reverse is also true: “it makes just as much sense to think of agriculture as something the grasses did to people as a way to conquer the trees”. By appealing to our desires, certain plants have inspired us to plant them, protect them, transport them across oceans, and even write books about them. 

Feijoas haven’t done this quite so triumphantly as the apple, potato, tulip and cannabis plants that Pollan profiles. But they have still been astoundingly successful: of the world’s roughly 30,000 edible plant species, only around 150 are now cultivated for human consumption. Most of those were domesticated hundreds or thousands of years ago. Feijoas are one of the very few plants that have made this journey from the wild to the orchard in the last few generations – meaning they provide an unusual opportunity to watch, up close, how plants worm their way into our collective hearts.

From its homelands in Uruguay, southern Brazil, and a skerrick of Argentina, the feijoa induced humans to help it conquer the world – or a few far-flung, particular parts of it, anyway. First, the south of France, where feijoas were cultivated among date palms, eucalypts and New Zealand pōhutukawa in the exotic Riviera gardens of the European aristocracy. From there, we obligingly carried them to subtropical gardens in both hemispheres, from Azerbaijan to Egypt, Japan to Australia. Today, if you look, you can find feijoas growing on the Gaza Strip and at Disney World in Florida. You can order a feijoa cocktail in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. In just a few places, they took hold, entered into the hearts of the people, and became entwined with culture and cuisine, memory and celebration. 

Festival of the Feijoa, Tibasosa, Colombia, 2019. Judging the feijoa desserts competition with Alberto Molano Zabala and Luz Marina.

One of those places was my birthplace, New Zealand. Feijoa season here – extending roughly from March to the beginning of June – is a time of profligate generosity. Kids sell them for a pittance at roadside stalls. People take bagfuls of feijoas to the office and give them away to co-workers. Others leave laden wheelbarrows parked outside their houses, with handwritten signs reading “help yourself” propped up among the bounty. Because of this gifting, they are sometimes called “the people’s fruit”. For me, and for many other New Zealanders, feijoas have become a kind of unofficial national emblem, a totemic symbol of home. 

Every year, that first glistening mouthful evokes a powerful rush of something like nostalgia. There is no proper term in English for this flavour-prompted feeling, but two words, one from the feijoa’s native land (Brazil) and one from that of my distant Evans ancestors (Wales), come close: the Portuguese “saudade” and the Welsh “hiraeth”: a bittersweet sort of homesickness, a wistful longing for a faraway land. 

Feijoa: A Story of Obsession and Belonging by Kate Evans ($40, Moa Press) is available from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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