We are very fortunate to have made a small circle of friends in and around the small town of Garda on the shores of Lake Garda in the north of Italy.
We visit them, nowadays, twice in an average year, enjoying their company and the beautiful scenery, fine wines and excellent food of the area … appreciating the fact that Alexandra, the sommelier at the hotel where we always stay, and Andrea, the Michelin-star trained chef, can be relied upon to keep on producing fine wines and wonderful food from the local area. We were there in the early part of October when, among the other attractions, the local hoteliers’ association laid on a programme of free half-day coach tours to show visitors some parts of the region that are very difficult to access by public transport, including the charming little village of Borghetto, a one-time centre of milling and now a picturesque hamlet of great interest and charm. (Are you reading this, local tourism chiefs?)
On the edge of Borghetto, beside the small car park provided for visitors’ cars and where the occasional coach can discharge its passengers to walk the 600m or so to the village, stands a field of kiwi fruit. I did know that the Veneto region actually supplies most of northern Europe with kiwi fruit but had never before seen the bushes ready to be harvested; and the sight made me curious to learn a little more about the fruit sometimes called the Chinese gooseberry and very much associated with New Zealand.
The bushes are a natural neighbour to the vines which grow throughout the region for, like the vine, they need support, for they are climbers which far outstrip the vine in their rampant growth, reaching a height of up to ten metres … say, about 30 feet in old money … if they are left unchecked. They have large, heart-shaped leaves and, in the summer months, produce cream-coloured flowers which are unexpectedly small for a large bush. Despite the use of the name as the nickname for New Zealanders, and particularly the New Zealand rugby team, kiwifruit … its more usual name outside the United Kingdom … are actually native to southern China. I learn from the internet that the first kiwifruit seed were introduced into New Zealand a little over a hundred years ago, with the first commercial planting being done as recently as 1937. American servicemen deployed in the South Pacific during the Second World War found the fruit very much to their liking; and in 1952 improvements in the long-distance transportation of fruit led to the first kiwifruit being exported to the United States. The name ‘kiwi’ comes from the Chinese qi yi, meaning ‘wonder’, for the heavy-fruiting bushes were known to the Chinese, among other names, as ‘wonder bushes’.
And little wonder, for a mature bush … and it takes at least seven years before a new bush will produce a worthwhile crop … will yield ten kilograms of fruit (or more than 20 pounds avoirdupois). The fruits of the variety most commonly grown commercially are about the size of a large egg, with a rather hairy, brownish green skin which shines silvery-green in bright sunshine. They are rich in Vitamin C and are an excellent source of dietary fibre; in short, they are good for you, although substances called flavonoids and actinidain have been know to cause an allergic reaction in the mouth and throat. They can be grown in the United Kingdom, but very unlikely to thrive in central Scotland, for the frost-tender bushes are too large to be grown in anything less than many times the height of a domestic greenhouse. A gardener with a heated Victorian orangery built along a south-facing wall, a knowledge of vine cultivation and a great deal of patience might just succeed, but the vast majority of people will do far better to head off to their local supermarket and buy the fruit there.
Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society