New Zealand's berry of plenty

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 September, 2011, 12:00am


It's no coincidence that the region that surrounds the New Zealand city of Mount Maunganui is known as the Bay of Plenty.

Nature has smiled on this land, from its rolling hills, through to its sweeping valleys that reach out to a wide blue ocean. Settlers who reached this far-off destination - both Maori and Western - could hardly believe their luck.

Farms first sprouted up around the Bay of Plenty in the 1870s but it wasn't until the 1920s that the locals hit on the quirky little product that would make the region famous.

The 'Chinese gooseberry' (Actinidia deliciosa or yang tao) first arrived in New Zealand thanks to a curious school teacher named Mary Isabel Fraser, who visited Yichang in China's Hubei province in the early 1900s and tucked away seeds in her luggage after taking a fancy to the fruit. Once the Chinese gooseberry vine had been planted in the country's North island, it thrived - and nowhere more so than in the Bay of Plenty.

Local farmer Hayward Wright set his mind to developing a local variety of the Chinese gooseberry, and by the late 1920s the 'Hayward Kiwifruit' had hit market stalls, taking its name from the farmer and from the flightless bird that is New Zealand's national emblem.

'These days 80 per cent of New Zealand's kiwi fruit production comes from the Bay of Plenty,' says Matt Crawford, government relations manager at Zespri, New Zealand's largest kiwi fruit marketing body, based in Mount Maunganui. 'Farmers here found the perfect microclimate for the fruit with rainfall all year round, volcanic soil and decent blasts of sunshine, too.'

The little fruit packs a powerful dietary punch. Kiwi fruit contains the natural enzyme actinidin, which helps break down proteins for easier digestion, as well as high levels of vitamin C and iron.

'Quite simply, though, it tastes good,' says Crawford. 'But the health and nutritional aspect of the fruit is one of its real advantages. Its vitamin C, potassium, fibre and digestive properties have helped it be recognised as what people today call a 'super fruit'. It might be small but it really holds its own.'

The preferred method of consumption, New Zealanders say, is just a simple 'cut and scoop' but kiwi fruit has also found uses as a garnish (on traditional pavlovas, for example) as well as an incredibly effective meat tenderiser.

Kiwi fruit consumption has grown dramatically in the past two decades - with global production doubling to about 1.3 million tonnes produced annually. Part of that success has been due to the emergence of the Zespri Gold variety on the market, a new strain developed 14 years ago which comes with yellow flesh and a sweeter taste than the earlier green Hayward.

'The gold is a sweet tasting fruit which has really found a home in the Asian market and with the Asian palate,' says Crawford. 'We continue to search for new varieties with about 100,000 different plants in the ground at any one time trying to find the next breakthrough or the next star performer.

'It's important that they have the right attributes, including nutritional attributes. This year we have three new varieties out there - two golds and a green - so it's a matter of constant development.'

Zespri alone sends more than 100 million trays of kiwi fruit to 60 countries annually, with Hong Kong and China accounting for about 10 per cent of sales. 'China and Hong Kong are big markets for the fruit,' says Crawford. 'In 2004 we sent 400,000 trays in China; last year we sent about 10 million.'

New Zealand farmers account for 30 per cent of the global trade in kiwi fruit in terms of volume, but 70 per cent of the value - due to the consistent quality of their produce.

China remains the world's largest producer of yang tao but almost all the produce grown is consumed domestically. But such has been the rise in demand that China is now supplementing its own crop with imports from the world's other kiwi fruit growing nations - Italy, Chile and most certainly New Zealand.

The spread of the major kiwi fruit-growing nations across the southern and northern hemispheres also means the fruit is these days available year round.