Few people are more synonymous with single fruit or vegetable than Frieda Caplan and kiwifruit. Before it became the culinary rage, kiwifruit was called the Chinese gooseberry. It was not a name that Madison Avenue would have devised. On top of that, the Chinese gooseberry wasn’t terribly attractive; it looked like a large brown egg with a two-day-old beard.
But at a customer’s request, Caplan’s company, Produce Specialties Inc. (now called Frieda’s Inc.) began importing the kiwifruit in 1962, a year after kiwifruit had its U.S. restaurant debut at Trader Vic’s in San Francisco. It took Caplan four months to sell 1000 kiwifruit. Luckily, the fruit’s long shelf life allowed it to hold up splendidly. A fellow food broker suggested she might sell fruit faster if the name were changed to that of the flightless New Zealand bird whose fuzzy brown coat looked a lot like a kiwifruit skin. Caplan suggested it to the growers in New Zealand and they loved it. (Unbeknownst to Caplan at the time, Australian food authority Graham Kerr had suggested the name Golden Berry. It didn’t fly.)
Caplan championed the fruit wherever she could. She got a local bakery to make kiwifruit tarts, which were sold for little more than cost. In 1970, she bought the entire first California crop (which yielded a mere 1200 pounds). And she convinced a major supermarket chain to sell kiwifruit for 10 cents apiece.
By 1980 kiwifruit had taken off. Famous chefs like Wolfgang Puck were putting them on menus. By the end of the decade, it seemed you couldn’t walk into a restaurant that didn’t have kiwifruit in some form. “We call it the 18 year overnight success,” Caplan now says with a combination of amusement and satisfaction.
Today, thanks to Frieda Caplan, kiwifruit is considered a commodity just like apples and oranges.
Because early botanists thought the kiwifruit tasted like a gooseberry and because it was discovered in the Chang Kiang Valley of China, it was called the Chinese gooseberry.
Referred to as yang tao, the fruit was considered a delicacy by Chinese Khans who cherished the brilliant emerald green color and sweet tart taste resembling a combination of strawberries, nectarines, and melons. It was also thought of as a tonic for growing children.
Though the kiwifruit became better known in New Zealand, kiwifruit plants were exported to the United States two years before their seeds made it to New Zealand in 1906. But agricultural testing in the United States did not begin until 1935. The first commercial grower was Carl Heinke who planted vines next to his grapes in California in 1960. In 1966, Bob Smith of the U.S. Plant Introduction Gardens gave George Tanimoto, a nurseryman in Gridley, California, some seeds from that fruit. Four years later he produced the first commercial crop bought up by Frieda Caplan.
California produces about 99% of the kiwifruit consumed in the United States from November through April. A tiny amount is grown in South Carolina.
Surprisingly, the bulk of the fruit from April through October is supplied not by New Zealand but Chile where kiwifruit is the third-largest planted fruit, after apples and grapes. Chile supplies the United States with 93% of the kiwifruit during this second kiwifruit season, New Zealand only 7%. (Imports of New Zealand kiwifruit have decreased in recent years because of an anti dumping suit brought against them by California Kiwifruit Growers.)
In terms of worldwide kiwifruit production, Italy is No. 1 followed by New Zealand, Chile, France, Japan, Greece, the United States, Portugal, Korea, Spain and Australia.
Though it looks like a tree fruit, kiwifruit is actually a berry that grows on tree-like shrubs that can reach as high as 25 feet. The shrubs are trellised much like grapevines. The Hayward – named after nurseryman Hayward Wright – is the principal kiwifruit variety grown in New Zealand, Chile and California. Each fruit is egg-shaped and about three inches long with a thin, fuzzy brown skin. The flesh is a bright green studded with tiny edible black seeds in a beautiful sunburst pattern.
Since Chile and New Zealand have opposite growing seasons from California, there is virtually a year round supply kiwifruit. Chilean imports begin in April, peak from May through June, and continue until mid-October. New Zealand’s season is the same. The California season begins in late October and goes through April and into May.
The term “peak” season for kiwifruit is a relative term since much of the fruit is harvested at the same time and kept in storage where it is metered out over the course of the season. Kiwifruit can last 10 months without resorting to a controlled atmosphere, up to a year if the storage atmosphere is under tight control.
SELECTION, HANDLING & STORAGE
When it was still considered an uncommon fruit, author Elizabeth Schneider referred to kiwifruit in her “Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables” (Harper & Row, 1986) as a “fruit handler’s dream.” Why? Because it can be picked early and hard, stored up to 10 months in cold storage and be protected from bruises and breaks by its thin but durable fuzzy brown skin.
Fruit with the sweetest, fullest flavor should be plump, fragrant and yield to gentle pressure. Rejects shriveled or mushy fruit or fruit with bruises or wet spots. Unripe fruit has a hard core, tart, almost astringent, taste. Much like bananas, kiwifruit are ripened with ethylene gas when they are ready for retail sale. As with bananas, hard fruit can be ripened at home by letting it sit at room temperature. You can speed-up the process by putting the fruit in a bag with an apple, pear or banana. To prevent further ripening, keep kiwifruit away from other fruits that emit ethylene gas. Ripe kiwifruit will keep in the refrigerator up to 10 days. Unripe kiwifruit will last in the refrigerator for up to a month.
Kiwifruit doesn’t get the nutritional hoopla it deserves. For example, a serving of two kiwifruit – 148 grams, about 5.3 ounces – has twice the vitamin C of an orange (230% of the RDA), more dietary fiber than a cup of bran flakes (5 grams) and more potassium than a comparable serving of bananas. In addition, kiwifruit has 2% of the RDA for vitamin A, 10% for vitamin E, 6% for calcium, 4% for iron and 8% for folic acid. Credit goes to those numerous poppy-like seeds that kiwifruit have. The seeds act much like grains – which are nothing more than seeds – providing a powerhouse of nutrition. A serving of kiwifruit contains 100 calories with 25 grams of carbohydrates, 1.5 grams of fat and 2 grams of protein.
Though the skin is edible, most people peel kiwifruit before using it in dishes or by itself. To peel, lop off both ends then peel off skin with a sharp stainless steel paring knife or vegetable peeler. The fruit is then cut in thin slices or halved, lengthwise, then cut it into half moon slices.
Kiwifruit contains an enzyme that makes it a decent meat tenderizer. (But don’t expect miracles.) Use kiwis slices or peels with some flesh on them and marinate 30 minutes for each inch of the meat’s thickness. As with fresh pineapple, this enzyme also prevents gelatin from setting. So if you want to use kiwi in a gelatin mold, you’ll have to poach it, though you’ll risk some loss of texture and color. Kiwifruit combines well with both tropical and semi-tropical or sub tropical fruit, meaning it goes well with bananas and mangoes as well as oranges and strawberries. It adds a lively burst of color and tart-sweet flavor.