The cost-of-living crisis is starting to bite here in Aotearoa. Food inflation is the highest it’s been for 13 years with the cost of groceries rising by a whopping 8.3% in August. The cost of eggs and dairy are rising fast. But it’s the price of fruit and vegetables that are making many kiwis feel the pinch.
Aotearoa is not the only country experiencing a rapid increase in the price of groceries. This is, a wet winter aside, a global problem with the cost of fuel and fertilizer going through the roof and leaving food producers with little choice but to pass the increases on to consumers.
In New Zealand however, we are in the enviable position of having an array of produce available on our literal doorsteps for free.
Well, sort of free.
My street, the street I grew up on, is lined with lemon trees. The council planted them in the 1950s as part of a community garden project. They fruit in late winter and my older son and I wait until near the end of the season then go out with a ladder and some shopping bags. We make lemon cordial with the juice and zest. We freeze it in bags until the weather gets warmer and a glass of lemonade is just the thing.
My partner, my two sons, and I take a stroll around our suburban neighbourhood most evenings. We walk west towards the setting sun for a few blocks, then hang a right to visit the friendly rabbit that lives on a neighbour’s small section behind a chain-wire fence. Don’t worry, this part isn’t about free food. The rabbit is our friend. No one is going in a pie just yet.
At this time of year, early summer or late spring, we take a right from the bunny’s place and head east towards the large loquat tree a block away. Right now it is groaning with fruit. No one seems particularly interested besides me, my eight year old, and some sparrows. Loquats grow easily and plentifully around my part of the Waikato, though they don’t fruit much further south (sorry Mainlanders). The fruit are small and round with a thin, yellow skin and soft, white flesh. In Italy, where they are known as nespola, they are celebrated as the first stone fruit of the season and are baked into tarts, much like apricots. The large pips are used to flavour a liqueur called nespolino. Loquats are hugely popular in China and are mentioned in Chinese medieval literature including the poems of my favourite drunkard, Li Bai.
Before the loquats appeared on the scene we went in search of tangelos. These start fruiting around September and keep on keeping on until Christmas. A cross between a grapefruit and a mandarin, they are a delicious, if messy treat. They don’t peel as easily as a mandarin so there is a lot of tearing of flesh and juice cascading down forearms and chins. T-shirts are stained. Children are even stickier than usual.
Soon plums will start appearing on the odd, stray branch, creeping over garden walls and within arms’ reach. Round here, people are a lot more protective of their plums than of their loquats and tangelos. Some varieties ripen in December but late February or early March is when the Omega variety are ready to eat. Red, speckled skin with deep purple flesh, these are the most delicious of the local plums with a ferocious acidity to counter the sweetness. The bain of wearers of white t-shirts.
In late summer and early autumn the king and queen of New Zealand street foraging emerge. The mighty feijoa: New Zealand’s most socialist fruit. Originally from Brazil, the feijoa has been enthusiastically adopted by the New Zealand people. Whereas our other great exotic berry, the kiwifruit, has become a multi-billion dollar industry, the feijoa remains stubbornly resistant to cash-ins. As I tell my son, a native of Texas, when he sees his favourite fruit in the supermarket: “No. New Zealanders don’t pay for feijoas.” We eat them all through the autumn. We collect them off the ground outside his school. I time my afternoon runs to finish at a particularly prolific trees a few streets away. We fill our bellies. We pay nothing.
To me, this fruit foraging seems perfectly normal and acceptable. I grew up on a street with free lemons. They are free to everyone. People stop their cars to fill a bag and they see me watching them as I colect the mail, some of them don’t pay me any mind, but some hunch their shoulders with guilt and shame. Sometimes I’ll go and get my ladder for them, or tell them that there is better fruit on the next block. I don’t feel any ownership over these lemons.
If we can reach the fruit from the street without stepping foot on the owner’s property, then we consider it fair game. If not, we’ll either leave it alone or ask the owner if he or she happens to be within earshot.
There is something nostalgic about eating fruit from the street. It reminds me of a more egalitarian country, one that perhaps didn’t exist, where everyone had a quarter acre and some fruit trees growing along the fence. You could take some of theirs and perhaps they would take some of yours. Because we all had pretty much the same, it didn’t really matter. These days we don’t all have the same. We are more unequal than we have ever been and a lot of that is down to land ownership.
But I’m still going to eat your loquats, and you’re welcome to my lemons.