Feijoas

Until this Autumn – my first cohabiting with a feijoa tree – the short-seasoned feijoa was a near-mythical fruit that used to appear in generous supermarket bag donations on the doorstep. I’d immediately set upon them to devour the sweet fragrant honey-coloured flesh in obscene quantities.

 

Feijoa halves

Feijoa

 

I couldn’t understand why people would give them away.

 

Now I have a feijoa tree I realise they’re quite hard to give away. Who had any idea how much fruit one tree could yield? And in the Auckland suburbs, if you don’t have a tree of your own, your neighbour does, or you’ve already been gifted in substantial quantities.

 

I adore them, longed for them while living overseas for 10 years, but as ungrateful as I feel saying this, the tree is relentless. The thrill with which I ate the first 20 has been replaced with a kind of dogged appreciation. The taste is still a sensation, but feijoa fatigue is setting in.

 

Apparently, this has always been the way.

 

David Burton’s New Zealand Food and Cookery says, “Such was the seasonal glut that, traditionally, owners of backyard trees would put buckets of free fruit outside their gates.”

 

I’ve always been curious how this fruit became such a staple of the suburban Kiwi garden, and this botanist’s description of feijoas from Purdue University in the United States is somewhat illuminating.

 

Feijoas originate in the highlands of South America and are named after a Brazilian-born botanist: João da Silva Feijó. After the successful fruiting of a Brazilian plant in France in 1897, plantings were then distributed to many other parts of the world including the Caribbean, India, California, Florida and Australia.

 

This flurry of international activity is in contrast to the relative invisibility of feijoas today outside New Zealand. It’s why the Purdue description asserts: “Few fruit bearers have received as much initial high-level attention and yet have amounted to so little…”

 

However “…nowhere has the feijoa received more attention than in New Zealand.”

 

Feijoa tree

The feijoa tree

 

It says an Auckland nurseryman brought three varieties here from Australia in 1908. It remained little known until 1930 when it began being promoted as an ornamental wall shrub. It was also popular for its wind-breaking properties.

 

So back before people fenced their suburban gardens so extensively, it helped provide some sense of a border and privacy. They also seemed to love the climate, fruiting well here.

 

It seems our grandparents and great-grandparents thought them quite the must-have – and thank goodness they did.

 

What to make with feijoas

 

Feijoas are fabulous in baking, retaining their shape fairly well in juicy chunks and taking on a slightly tarter flavour than when fresh.

 

I really like the French dessert clafoutis to really showcase seasonal fruit. This is basically a rich egg custard with just a touch of flour to stabilise it. The feijoas, which have been lightly cooked first in melted butter and brown sugar, meld with the custard, their juices seeping down to flavour it.

 

Feijoa clafoutis

Feijoa clafoutis

 

I used this James Martin recipe from the BBC website, substituting the plums for feijoa.

 

I also made poached feijoas in green ginger wine from the Fast, Fresh and Tasty iPhone app, so these should last for a while, and be extra flavourful in baking and desserts.

Meat pie

On Fridays we used to get a gold coin to buy lunch at the school tuck shop. Come 12:30 this was exchanged for a meat pie whose wafts of warm pastry and unctuous savoury gravy had been drifting through the school corridors all week (hopefully not the same pie, although possibly…)

 

The meat pie is pretty entrenched among the icons of Kiwiana (and in Aussie imagery too). It’s food that, in our minds, people doing real work stop for.

 

It’s not that our pies are hugely different to pies found elsewhere, it’s just they’re everywhere and we eat more of them than anyone else – about 70 million, or 12 each, per year.

 

Meat pie

My meat pie

 

Pie: A Global History by Janet Clarkson is one of the addictive microhistories of food published by Reaktion Books. Like pie as we know it, it never takes itself too seriously.

 

The Pie history says pie probably began life as a way of cooking meat. Meat had always been cooked directly on the flame until the idea came about to save the fat and juices by wrapping meat in dough and placing it in bread ovens – before cooking containers came about. The crust was probably eaten too, though would have been very tough.

 

For pie wasn’t really pie until pastry was invented: the fine art of adding cold fat – and just the right amount of water – to flour to achieve the correct working of gluten so it’s neither too tough nor too flat, but crisp and light. Pie dates this invention to around the 14th Century in Europe.

 

Pastry and rolling pin

Roll-your-own

 

England had a great pie tradition, where pie was often the centerpiece of a meal and a showcase of a manor house host’s abundant game and produce…. think four-and-twenty blackbirds – dining theatre. And pie and mash houses were a major presence of London working class life in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

 

The Kiwi (and Australian – about as fond of pies as we are) pie tradition descends squarely from British roots. However pie is no longer ubiquitous in England. That role’s been taken on by the Cornish pasty. When the British Government threatened to add sales tax to hot baked goods this year the major uproar that ensued was dubbed the ‘pasty tax’ debacle – no mention of pies.

 

In New Zealand you’re never more than a few kilometres from a pie, and often not a good one. The service station pie, still hot at 4am, represents a lowpoint of local cuisine. But for those of us who’ve become wary of mystery meat and other ruses of industrial food processing, there are plenty of independent cafes and bakeries offering a better quality product – with more adventurous flavours – while still providing the satisfaction of tender meat in a crispy pastry shell. Or make your own…

 

Meat pie

Half pie

 

How to make meat pie

 

Here is a recipe for a classic Kiwi steak pie. The filling is good, however, I prefer shortcrust pastry for a pie base with flaky pastry on top. I followed this recipe for the steak, then made shortcrust pastry and used store-bought pastry sheets on top.

Before embarking on pastry making I read this article twice: the Science of Pie Dough at serious-eats.com.

To make your own pastry you need:

220 grams of flour

110 grams cold hard butter cut into cubes

A pinch of salt

1 to 2 tablespoons of cold water.

Cut the butter through the flour and salt in a food processer until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Remove to a bowl and add cold water using a spatula until it becomes a solid lump. Wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes. Roll out to about 5 mm thick. Cut out the pie bases by tracing about 20 mm wider than the pie dish and press in place. Put the dishes back in the fridge for another 45 minutes before adding the cold filling and the flaky pastry top.

Bake at 200 for about 30 minutes or until golden brown.

 

Where to buy decent pies in Auckland

 

Taking the advice of this New York Times Frugal Traveller blogger on where to eat in my own city, I have sampled pies at The Food Room (250 Ponsonby Rd, Ponsonby) and The Fridge (507 New North Rd, Kingsland) – both have a selection of contemporary and classic flavours, top ingredients and fresh flaky pastry.

 

Tarta de Santiago – almond cake

Santiago de Compostela in Spain’s Galicia region: the medieval town hums with reverential visitors, some of whom have walked hundreds of kilometres on the ancient pilgrim routes to view the tomb of Saint James, whose relics are said to be held here.

 

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela - destination for Christian pilgrims

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

 

The patisserie to try, on view in the windows of the cubbyhole shops clustered in narrow streets round the cathedral, is the tarta de Santiago, an almond meal tart infused with citrus and decorated with a cross and scallop shell – the symbol of this pilgrimage.

 

Claudia Roden describes this tart in her new cookbook The Food of Spain, which is a glorious uncovering of food from every corner of the country.

 

Roden’s view is that the celebrated tart in this most Christian of cities is a legacy of Jewish people – on the basis that it a typical Passover cake, made when leavened products cannot be consumed. According to Roden, in the 12th century, when the Berber Almohads tried to convert the Jews in Al-Andalus (the Muslim south) they fled to the Christian north bringing with them their Judeo-Moorish cuisine.

 

Ground almonds

Ground almonds (trying hard to look like couscous)

 

Passover sees any leavened bread products, known as chametz, cleared from the home in observant Jewish households. Because almond meal is a rich alternative to flour, it makes a perfect cake for the Seder meal.

 

In Santiago de Compostela it is served in a pastry shell, but the filling holds up as a cake on its own. It’s the pastry-less version that Roden has included in her book. It is made of almond meal, so no flour, and beaten eggs provide the only raising agent.

 

Tarta de Santiago - almond cake

Tarta de Santiago - almond cake

 

Roden had already popularised a similar orange and almond cake when she wrote a seminal book on Middle Eastern Food in 1968. This recipe sees whole oranges boiled for two hours before being pureed – pith and all – and then combined with the almonds and eggs, ending much the same way as tarta de Santiago. Nigella Lawson updated this recipe with clementines, giving it a new audience in the 2000s. These cakes are often spotted as a gluten-free option at cafes and bakeries.

 

Almond cakes aren’t decadent or showy fare. They tend to be low and flat, moist and delicate. They’re restrained for a cake – perfect for morning or afternoon tea, or dessert when you’re still full from dinner.

 

Tarta de Santiago is one of hundreds of food stories that Roden illuminates in The Food of Spain. At the heart of the book is an appreciation of the multiple influences that have created Spanish culture and its cuisine – among them Arabic, Jewish and the impact of New World food discoveries. Definitely worth getting hold of.

 

How to make tarta de Santiago – almond cake

The recipe for Claudia Roden’s almond cake is available here on the BBC Radio 4 Women’s Hour website.