Califonia Bountiful

The fuss about fuzzy fruit

November/December 2017 California Bountiful magazine

California kiwifruit season offers sweet rewards

Pastry chef Ahmed Eita puts finishing touches on a fruit basket cake at his Sacramento dessert shop. Featuring the colorful tang of kiwifruit, the cake is a customer favorite. Photo: © 2017 Matt Salvo

Sweet and tart with an emerald-green interior, California kiwifruit is a winter must-have for award-winning pastry chef Ahmed Eita, owner of Rick's Dessert Diner in downtown Sacramento. His fruit basket cake—loaded with kiwifruit and strawberries—is the most popular item on his menu and just the ticket for customers in search of a show-stopping dessert.

"It's a layer of sponge cake, topped with Bavarian custard—a vanilla-based cream—and topped with the fresh fruit," said Eita, whose restaurant features more than 280 treats, from cakes and tortes to pies and pastries. "The kiwi actually has a citrus taste and that adds flavor to the cake, along with the custard. I add strawberries for extra flavor to complement the kiwi."

Customer Geoffrey Shaw is one of the confection's many fans.

"The fruit basket cake is creamy and delicious, especially with the juxtaposition of the sourness and tartness of the kiwi, with the sweetness and texture of the whipped cream," he said.

Now is the ideal time to enjoy the fruit basket cake—along with the cheesecake, fruit tart, pies and other desserts on Eita's menu that feature California kiwifruit. October through early November is peak season, meaning the fruit is flavorful, juicy and very ripe.

"We use kiwis in our desserts because of the goodness of it and the tart taste," Eita said. "The kiwis are best during winter when picked fresh from the farms."

Harvested from September to early November in California and available from fall through spring, kiwifruit offers a bright burst of fresh fruit flavor during the colder months. The intriguing, furry nuggets are encouraging more fruit fans to discover that great things can come in unusual packages.

Juan Martinez Lopez picks kiwifruit from vines growing on a trellis overhead. Photo: © 2017 Tomas Ovalle

Coming up kiwi

Kiwifruit have been steadily gaining in popularity since the 1960s, when they were first exported to the U.S. by commercial growers from New Zealand. Native to Asia and previously known as Chinese gooseberries, the distinctive brown fruit was renamed after the kiwi, New Zealand's national bird, which it resembles.

The fruit's outward appearance belies its brightly colored interior and vibrant, acidic flavors. Kiwifruit is also versatile and can be added to salads and dressings, served over salmon or meats, or used as the key ingredient in tarts, shortcakes or smoothies. These qualities, plus a reputation for healthfulness, make for a fruit with great growth potential.

Bakersfield-based Sun Pacific grows, packs and ships kiwifruit, as well as table grapes, lemons, tomatoes, oranges, and mandarin oranges sold under the Cuties brand. Sun Pacific says it produces 50 percent of the North American kiwifruit supply and also exports a small portion of the crop to Japan.

But they aren't stopping there—the company has designs on solidifying kiwifruit as a staple produce purchase and gaining a greater share of the fruit bowl. It plans to triple kiwifruit production by 2025, according to Zack Stuller, area advisor for Sun Pacific.

"The kiwi is a very healthy piece of fruit and because of that, they are in high demand," Stuller said. "We've had tremendous success with the Cuties brand and that is what we're trying to do with Mighties, our kiwifruit brand."

Researchers have found kiwifruit to be one of the most nutrient-dense fruits, packing more nutrients per ounce and providing a good source of fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fatty acids, according to the Kiwifruit Administrative Committee, based in Sacramento.

Danny Garcia, left, and Zack Stuller of Sun Pacific, with employee Rafa Diaz, center, check the quality of kiwifruit during harvest. Photo: © 2017 Tomas Ovalle

Grown with care

California growers such as Sun Pacific produce 98 percent of the nation's crop of kiwifruit, or roughly 30,000 tons annually. About 65 percent of that is grown in Tulare, Kings and Fresno counties, while Yuba, Sutter and Butte counties grow the remainder, said Nicholas Matteis, associate director of the Kiwifruit Administrative Committee.

Cultivating kiwifruit is a process as unique as the fruit itself. Kiwifruit is actually a berry and grows on vines, not trees. The vines grow on trellises, forming a lush green canopy that shades the juicy orbs dangling underneath. Only female plants produce fruit, so farmers must bring in hives of honeybees during bloom to move pollen from male plants to female plants to set the fruit. Timing is critical.

"We rely very heavily on bees and on the weather. If it is too cold, the bees won't work and if it is too hot, there's a short window of when they will work," Stuller explained.

Fruit shippers take care to ensure every kiwifruit that reaches customers is ripe and ready to eat. The fruit must meet certain Brix values, a measurement of sugar content, to make the cut.

"If the fruit is not ready, we won't harvest it. We will wait for a higher Brix and then we'll start picking," Stuller said.

Farm manager Garcia tastes for sweetness as the fruit is harvested, left. Photo: © 2017 Tomas Ovalle. In addition to growing the traditional emerald-green kiwifruit, California farmers are experimenting with new varieties such as yellow-fleshed kiwis, right. Photo: © Matt Salvo

Entering the Golden Age

For its large size and high sugar content, the Hayward is the most popular of the more than 40 known kiwifruit varieties produced around the globe. To meet a growing demand for kiwifruit, farmers are planting more acres and trying new varieties.

"There's more of the Hayward variety going in, but there's been some significant acreage planted that are various types of gold varieties, which are new for the state," Matteis said. "A different flavor profile for a different customer, the gold or yellow-flesh varieties tend to be sweeter, whereas the green have a sweet-tart flavor."

Some farmers are banking on the new varieties to capture the interest of shoppers, much the way the introduction of lesser-known varieties of mandarin oranges has reshaped citrus consumption. Kiwifruit grower Doug Phillips of Phillips Farms in Visalia added a large greenhouse for new kiwifruit varieties, and is propagating seedlings and planting rootstalk to evaluate how yellow-fleshed kiwifruit will fare in the Central Valley's hot, dry climate.

"You are seeing increased plantings of gold-flesh varieties coming out of New Zealand, Chile and Italy, so we believe the market will desire some of these different kiwifruit," Phillips said.

In more ways than one, the future of kiwifruit looks golden.

Christine Souza

Gary Ruggiero, a produce buyer for the Raley's grocery company, offers customers options for enjoying kiwifruit. Photo: © 2017 Matt Salvo

Kiwifruit is worth digging into

Are you one of kiwifruit's many fans? Or does this peculiar-looking fruit leave you perplexed? For those in the second camp, California kiwifruit are worth discovering—especially once fruit lovers figure out how to eat them.

"A lot of customers will tell you that they've never tried a kiwi, which is disappointing to hear. Overall, people don't really know what it is about and are kind of puzzled when they pick it up," said Gary Ruggiero, a produce buyer for Raley's, a grocery company based in West Sacramento. "'What do I do with it? Do I peel it?'"

Ruggiero noted that shoppers unfamiliar with kiwifruit could use a few pointers.

"There's a lot of things you can do: You can peel them and slice them for a salad or snacking, but my favorite way to eat a kiwifruit is to cut it in half and get out a spoon, and eat them right out of the skin," Ruggiero said.

With its kiwifruit sold as ripe and ready to eat, Sun Pacific's Mighties packaging usually includes a combination spoon/knife utensil called a "spife," which makes it easier to scoop and eat the fruit.

Other kiwifruit connoisseurs brush off the hairs, rinse and bite right into the fruit, eating the skin, which is rich in fiber and vitamin C, according to Nicholas Matteis of the Kiwifruit Administrative Committee.

"People all over the world have been eating the skin for centuries with no complaints, and many find that leaving the skin on sliced kiwifruit makes it much easier for snacking, as the skin holds each slice together," he said.

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