In February, Broadsheet Melbourne published an article on chef Victor Liong’s new Chinese cafe with the headline: “Victor Liong is Sick of Your Goddamn Avocados, Melbourne”.
It caused hundreds of comments on Facebook, many of them from readers worried their avocados were going to be somehow taken away. Others were defensive.
Among all the argument, one commenter drilled down to a basic truth: “People are sensitive about their smashed avo.”
Australia’s love affair with the avocado is so longstanding it’s considered de facto. Once we smothered them with prawns and mayo. Now we pulverise them over sourdough. Sometimes it’s even served unadorned for us to worship in all its verdant purity. But how did a crocodile-skinned fruit with a name derived from the Aztec word, ahuacatl (meaning “testicle”), become so popular?
The fruit (and it is a fruit, of course. It’s also served sweet in many parts of the world) originates from the highlands of Mexico and parts of Colombia, where it grows at high-ish altitudes, where, typically, days are warm and nights are cool. Conquistadors (Spanish or Portuguese soldiers and explorers) took the fruit to Europe in the 16th century after invading Peru. While it may have appeared earlier, the first avocado seed was officially planted in 1840 in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens. Since commercial farming began in the late 1960s, avocados have primarily grown in northern and central Queensland, where they reach maturity over winter. But, in the past decade, avos have drifted southward, popping up in Western Australia, southern NSW and along the Murray Darling.
It’s this southward push that’s allowed the avocado to attain its feverish popularity. Taken as a crop en masse, it’s pretty much available year-round. That’s allowed it to become a staple, something we expect to be able to pick up from the grocer, whenever.
“People should be able to get avocados year round,” says John Tyas, CEO of Avocados Australia. “Our southern regions, particularly south-west WA, have expanded in the past five to 10 years. In the past, our summer supply was produced mainly by New Zealand. Now we’ve got WA coming on board in big volumes, that’s really extended the Australian production right across the 12 months.”
That said, like anything else, there’s regional variation in quality, and any one region can only produce excellent fruit over any one period. Right now, we’re moving towards peak Hass season. The majority of the fruit, from Bundaberg and the Atherton Tablelands, is ready to pick. Over February and March, the greener Shepard avocados were in season, as were the Reeds, while the Hass was still on the tree.
But, because the fruit doesn’t ripen until it’s picked, farmers and distributors do have some flexibility regarding when it goes to market. Plum Tucker in Red Hill offers three different avocado dishes on its menu. By their estimates, owners Matt Carnell and Kate Lyons tear through up to 150 avocados a week — or around 7,500 a year. “We have an open dialogue with our suppliers and if they know that the avocados are going to be a bit harder they’ll deliver them earlier,” Lyons says. “They come in crates and storing them is fine. It’s really checking the quality of what’s coming through the door and checking whether they need to be stored or used straightaway.”
Avocado quality is sometimes compromised when – through a desire to shift a crop as fast as possible – farmers send them to market before the oil has developed. Tyas says that this is occasionally the case – though the industry’s taking steps to curb it. “It does happen,” he says. “And it’s not always the growers. Sometimes the marketers have a short supply, and they really need to meet an order, so they’ll often say to growers, ‘I know it’s not ready, but we desperately need it’.”
There are claims that rushing too many avocados to stores over the Christmas period was responsible for the Great Avocado Drought of 2016. Former Avocados Australia CEO Antony Allen told Fairfax it was the industry’s doing, flooding the market to keep prices down and cutting into that later supply, albeit unintentionally. “Before Christmas, the industry really marketed and made a conscious decision to not increase prices,” Lyons says. “And leading up to Christmas everyone is catering [at home] so they’re eating a lot of avocados.”
“But there were big droughts up at Mareeba,” Carnell continues. “So, classic low supply and high demand. And I guess with the marketing they did and the decision to keep prices the same before Christmas, it created this perfect storm.”
Tyas agrees that growers elsewhere were hit by inclement conditions, with fires and unseasonal rain occurring during harvest in both WA and New Zealand. “They were good volumes that were pumped through, but there wasn’t enough carry-over stock to supply that Christmas period,” he says. “They didn’t have sufficient stores in their coldrooms ready to put out.”
Tyas says the industry has learned from the recent experience. “What we try to do is have continuity around the year, so we don’t have these peaks and troughs in supply,” he says. “It’s not easy, as we found out post-Christmas.”
Understanding the avocado’s life cycle, and when it ripens where, really is key to choosing a good fruit. Trying to find a great-quality Hass in March is tilting at windmills – but you could find yourself a tasty Reed. Our expectation that we should have anything we want anytime we want it is appeased, if not actively encouraged, by supermarkets, which give the impression of having beaten the seasons altogether.
For Carnell and Lyons the shortage meant not taking avocado off the menu, but reducing portion sizes. And despite “two vocal customers who made it clear we should just wear it”, Plum Tucker became somewhere customers knew they could get their avocado fix. “We had people praising us for not taking it off, so that was great,” Lyons says.
But it also gave the couple an opportunity to open a dialogue with their customers. “It gave us a platform to discuss the products that make up our business in a way that made them a privilege and not a right,” Lyons continues. “Because all of a sudden across Brisbane there were no avocados. And Queenslanders expect avocados.”
Notwithstanding another unexpected shortage (God forbid), avocado isn’t going off the menu at Plum Tucker, or anywhere else. According to Avocados Australia industry data, our consumption of the wrinkly fruit has almost tripled over the past 20 years, and more plants are going in the ground. The reason is simple. “It’s so versatile. You can eat it savoury, you can eat it sweet,” Lyons enthuses. “You can have it for breakfast, lunch or dinner. There’s so much you can do and people are discovering the different ways you can eat it.”