Don't you just love it when you discover a completely new use for a fruit or vegetable that's so totally familiar you've taken it for granted? In my student days, I once threw pine nuts and raisins into silver beet that I just couldn't face stir-fried (again) and my flatmates thought they'd died and gone to Heaven! When I was about to roast fruit for a dinner party desert and discovered all I had on hand was rhubarb, I tossed it into the oven instead, and produced something you might find in a Cuisine magazine! So I don't suppose I should have been so surprised this week when an old childhood favourite which I'd always eaten raw, suddenly took on a new lease of life with a little cooking.
I've been house sitting, these last few days for a Dunedin friend and, as I usually do when I'm in the city, I put on my running shoes and went for jog round the 'burbs, looking over fences into gardens (full marks to the heroic family in Mornington, who are growing their gorgeous purple kale and kohlrabi in their front garden). Suddenly, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a tree smothered in fruits as bright as traffic lights. Its red, gold, and orange berries, each a good 2 centimetres in diameter, looked for all the world like Christmas baubles, and I was instantly transported back to my school days when my brother and I would meander past these Strawberry trees, scoffing handfuls of the fruit and then, stomachs full, using them them as squishy ammunition with which to pelt each other all the way home.
Peckish from running, I picked a few of the reddest and found them as delicious as ever. With a slightly grainy texture, similar to guava or quince, the reddest fruit are soft and sweet. Some people describe them as bland but I can only assume they are eating the under-ripe berries which are more yellow in colour. As the supply of home-grown produce I'd brought with me to the city was running low, I decided to pick more of the berries to take back to the house. I stuffed my pockets, gloves and hat with them, and called in at a garden center to check out the botanical name of my re-discovery. I was eating the fruit of Arbutus unedo, a tree so hardy that it will grow in both very hot and very cold climes, is unfussy about what soil type it is planted in (though it prefers less rather than more lime), puts up with coastal conditions, and delivers up its astonishingly beautiful harvest just as winter is putting paid to most other ornamentals.
Back in my kitchen, and beginning to realise the potential of my free bounty, I dived onto the internet and was soon producing a jar of scrummy Arbutus unedo jam and then an Arbutus unedo and apple crumble. I suspect there is no limit to how Arbutus unedo can be used in the kitchen though the rest of my plunder was chopped up next morning into my muesli – yum! It all rather begs the question of why I don't have an Arbutus unedo growing in my own garden, and I was all ready to duck back down to the garden centre to get one when I suddenly remembered our resident Catlins kereru. I just can't face having to net another fruit tree in order to beat those big fat birds to the harvest, and neither do I have to. As long as Arbutus unedo continues to be a popular park and roadside tree in almost every town and city in the country, and the rest of the world remains unaware of its potential, I'm in luck!