They’re funny and fuzzy, but oh so sweet. Kiwi time is here!
With its green flesh and distinctive brown skin, this oddball winter fruit hits its peak when most others are long gone. Its unusual taste is like a summer smoothie; part banana, strawberry and melon with a tropical twist. That makes fresh kiwi an interesting alternative for cold-weather meals and munching.
California produces more than 98 percent of the American kiwi crop, almost totally in the Central Valley. Harvested in October and November (then kept in cold storage), fresh California-grown kiwi will be available through early May.
“Overall, the quality and the size are quite good,” said Nick Matteis of the Sacramento-based California Kiwifruit Administrative Committee. “It’s a good sized crop; not huge, but good. We’re not seeing a lot of really small fruit, which is good, too.”
The 2017 crop totaled more than 30,000 tons, on par with 2016. That may sound like a lot of kiwi, but it’s just a slice of the global kiwi supply of more than 1.3 million tons.
If you guessed that New Zealand leads the world in kiwifruit, you’d be wrong. The Kiwis rank third in production of their namesake fruit behind China and Italy, but most imported kiwifruit in the U.S. does come from New Zealand.
In recent years, a flood of imported Italian and Chilean kiwi dragged down prices in the U.S., Matteis noted. That put many California growers out of the kiwi business.
Italy became a major kiwi producer after plant disease wiped out vineyards and made those soils unsuitable for grapes. Italian imports tend to go to the East Coast and Midwest.
“Our No. 1 competition still comes from New Zealand,” Matteis said. “We grow a lot of kiwis, but California can’t supply it all.”
Originally called “Chinese gooseberry” (although no relation to gooseberries), kiwifruit were first introduced accidentally to New Zealand in 1904. According to kiwi lore, the principal of a girl’s school brought back some seeds from China as a souvenir.
In their native China, these hairy berries are called mihoutao — “macaque fruit” — a reference to the macaque monkeys that love to eat kiwifruit in the wild. (Only recently did China become the world’s leading commercial grower of kiwi, primarily for jam.)
Now, kiwifruit are grown extensively around the world in areas with a Mediterranean climate. Chile, Greece, France, Turkey and Iran all grow more kiwifruit than California.
About the size of a chicken’s egg when mature, kiwifruit grow on woody vines, much like grapes, and need extensive trellising to support the heavy fruit. Also like grapes, kiwi are a hands-on fruit, requiring careful pruning and harvesting. A nearby male vine is needed to pollinate female plants.
“The trellises are 5 1/2 to 6 feet tall so harvesters can walk underneath,” Matteis said. “The vines form a big canopy. From a drone’s eye view, it looks like a big green blanket hovering over the ground.”
Although about 60 varieties of kiwifruit are grown internationally, most of the California crop is the Hayward variety. The Haywards have a uniform oval shape and weigh 3 to 4 ounces apiece.
Mega Kiwi — an oversized hybrid — has been recently introduced to favorable reviews, Matteis said. “These are pretty exciting. They weigh just under a pound each. One Mega covers the palm of your hand.”
Gold kiwis, a hairless kiwi with yellow flesh, have been test grown in California under tents to mimic moister New Zealand growing conditions.
“The tents also block some of our intense sun and wind,” Matteis explained. “They’re testing eight different gold varieties. Their production is expected to double to 500,000 (7-pound) trays of gold kiwis this year and it could be 1 million trays soon. They have no fuzz and they’re all sweet; they have less tartness than the Hayward.
“There’s also a red (fleshed) variety they’re testing,” he added. “These new varieties are definitely exciting.”
Our American appetite for kiwifruit continues to steadily grow, although on average we eat just about a pound of kiwis annually. It’s a nutritional powerhouse with more vitamin C per ounce than oranges and more potassium than a banana. As a winter fruit, it’s available when little else is fresh.
“There’s still a lot of potential in the (American) market,” Matteis said. “Kiwis are analogous to artichokes. They look funny. You wonder, how do you eat it? Then you cut into it — and it’s pretty awesome.”