NZ Lifestyle Block

The feijoa-drinking family of Ahuroa

It was love at first bite for Dale DeMeulemee­ster, and today it’s a family business

- Words Lee-Anne Duncan Images Kim DeMeulemee­ster

Plentiful feijoa buds swelling on the branches were a welcome sight for Dale and Eli De Meulemeest­er this autumn. Last summer, their drought-distressed trees dropped much of their fruit early. The only blessing was the timing. Everyone was locked down due to Covid-19 as the harvest ramped up, so the lesser yield was picked up by the wider DeMeulemee­ster clan, who were all in the one bubble on the family farm.

“We had plenty of grandchild­ren out here with nothing to do, so we got them all picking,” says Dale. “We pick the fruit up from the ground, which ensures the feijoas are as ripe as possible. I don't know what we would have done without all those grandkids here!”

This year's harvest is Dale's 45th, having planted his feijoa trees, along with many other fruit trees, on what was a small dairy farm 50 years ago. Dale is a Lord of Rings fan, so he named the farm Lothlorien after the forest realm of the elves.

Since then, the property has been transforme­d into a biodiverse organic orchard that produces feijoas and grapefruit. There'll be nuts soon too, including some very-slow-to-produce pecans, which Dale planted 38 years ago.

Since 1993, Dale and his son Eli have been producing feijoa wines, first with Logan Petley (who remains a business partner), and now Justin Oliver.

The feijoa family business

Dale still keeps a cow or two, handmilkin­g each morning to supply anyone on the farm who needs milk.

Four of his five children and their families live on the farm and most are involved in Lothlorien's business in some way. Eli's wife Kim looks after media and design, sister Amaya does labelling and packing, and Dale is the orchard manager.

Each year – so long as the weather plays ball, with adequate rain in

WHO: Dale & Eli DeMeulemee­ster WHERE: Ahuroa,

80km north of Auckland

LAND: 41ha (100 acres) WHAT: organic feijoa orchard and winery WEB: www.lothlorien­

February and March, when the feijoas need it most –

Lothlorien produces up to

30 tonnes of feijoas. Finding a viable eating market for that bounty is tricky.

“Everyone who cares about feijoas already has a tree or knows someone who does,” says Dale.

Exporting whole feijoas is also low return as the fruit must be picked before it’s properly ripe to reach consumers without spoiling, in the process ruining the taste.

That makes turning the crop into wine the best way to make a return. The family produces medium and dry sparkling wines, a reserve sparkling wine, and a dry feijoa still wine. The wines are a blend of feijoa and apple, with the apple rounding out the flavour, adding body and lowering the acidity. There’s also a feijoa and mānuka honey liqueur.

All are organic, and all – aside from the liqueur – are vegan, as the wines are fined with a pea protein. That’s important to Dale and Eli, who are both vegan, as are many customers.

Dale says being organic was the only way he could farm

Everyone who cares about feijoas already has a tree or knows someone who does, so the family had to create a value-added product.

after seeing the effect of agricultur­al sprays.

“When I first came to New Zealand in 1971, I worked in various orchards, and I saw the owners and other workers poison themselves with sprays, sometimes mildly, sometimes severely. It seems to me there's a much better way to produce food than cover it in poison.”

There are about 1000 feijoa trees over around 10ha (25 acres). However, it doesn't look like a typical commercial orchard where feijoas are planted in hedgerows, the leaves of one intermingl­ing with those on either side. The trees are spaced 6m apart, in rows 5m wide, and interplant­ed with other trees.

"There's oranges and grapefruit, and a few others. It's an idea I read in an old biodynamic book that says guava (feijoas are a type of guava) and citrus are companion plants. So we planted oranges among the original feijoa block, and we plant feijoas whenever grapefruit die in the citrus block."

Every year, they make a giant hot compost, which they spread around the trees.

Every three years, the BioGro certified organic orchard also undergoes soil testing.

"We send it to Far North Envirolab and Andreas (Kurrman, who runs the lab) makes a recommenda­tion.

"Everything we use is from organic sources: boron, copper, phosphorus, calcium, potassium, cobalt. Then Fodda (an organic fertiliser company) makes up a brew for us. It's not quite powder, not quite granules, and it's a bit sticky, so we spread that by hand around the trees."

One noticeable thing about the trees is their shape. They're short, wide, and very open.

"It's recommende­d to open the trees up so a bird can fly through because feijoa are bird-pollinated, but it also makes it easier for access, and it keeps the air flowing so fungus can't build up so easily." The biggest threat is a tiny moth.

"I think where we are has made it easier (to avoid guava moth). We're in the middle of a valley with big hills, and we have traps hanging in each block to see if any moths come in, and so far, we haven't caught any.

"But I think the biggest factor (in being

"I think the biggest factor is damn good luck."

guava moth-free) is damn good luck, and I know it can't last forever. It'll only take somebody bringing infected fruit here. We have suppliers, mostly from down south where there's no guava moth, and our local suppliers are very good – one stopped supplying us this year because he found a moth. It's tough for them, it's the second time they've had it."

An infestatio­n of guava moth could devastate their business, by ruining the fruit (see box below). Dale says the only thing they can do, besides careful biosecurit­y checks and traps, is to create a wine buffer.

"Feijoa wine keeps really well so we keep the vats full. If we get a tough year, hopefully we might still be in business."

Which feijoa tastes best?

Dale says they do grow some of the named varieties of feijoa, but most of their trees are grown from the seeds of tasty fruit.

"We mainly grow seed-grown trees, mostly from our own seed, but also from our suppliers. I get them to pick out fruit from their very best trees, they give me those, and Jo (Dale's partner) grows them for a year or two, then we plant the ones that are doing best.

"(Breeders) go for certain things. Sometimes it's smooth skin; sometimes it's more of a juicy centre rather than a pulpy centre. More often than not, they go for early ripening ones because that's when the price is right.

"But in doing that, they do lose flavour. Fruit that hangs on the tree longer tends to have more flavour."

Dale says their regime produces some interestin­g-looking feijoas.

"We get big, long, almost bananashap­ed fruit. Some have quite rumpled skin, a much tougher skin. Those ones don't give as much juice, but they do seem to give more flavour."

When the harvesting team heads out, there's one important rule: no picking.

"We're in a unique position," says Dale. "When you're making wine from all of your fruit, you let them fall to the ground. We pick them up three times a week, so it doesn't go to waste, and that way we get very ripe fruit. Then we ripen it further in bins to get good juice out of it for making wine."

It only took one taste for Dale to become a devotee of the brown-stippled, greenskinn­ed fruit. He'd never heard of it before then.

“Oh, I love it,” he says. “I couldn't believe it

because most of the fruits in the world are well known."

Dale and Eli have a theory as to why the Brazilian native is almost unknown outside of NZ.

“I think it might also be a timeline thing,” says Eli. “Over time, people in New Zealand have done work to develop larger size fruits with good flavour, but it's only been maybe in the last 40 years."

Dale agrees.

“I know people are looking for ‘new' fruits. I don't think there's anything quite as exciting as the feijoa, and I know if we capture that flavour, whether bottled, dried, juiced or fermented into wine, people looking for something new will try it and love it.

“If I live long enough, I'm sure I'll see feijoa spread around the world.”

The process is very similar to winemaking, but there's an added challenge, says Eli DeMeulemee­ster; feijoa don't give up their juice as easily as grapes.

“Feijoas seem juicy to eat, but their cell membranes are robust. We first pulp the fruit and use a natural enzyme to extract the juice from the cells.

“Then we use a ‘rack and cloth press' to squeeze the juice from about 20kg of pulp at a time, trapping the skins and pulp in the cloth. That pulp then goes on the orchard.”

“The grandkids help with that,” says Dale. “I drive along on the quad bike, and they shovel it off the trailer.”

The extracted juice then clarifies overnight before they add yeast and fermentati­on takes place.

“It's then left to settle and develop for about six months or so before we fine it with pea protein, filter, and bottle it,” says Eli. “The flavour actually disappears during the first couple of months, but it gradually comes back. Our wines have a fresh fruit flavour, so they're best drunk in the first one to two years.”

They hold the wine in tanks, then bottle it two months ahead of projected sales. Each year they produce around 50,000 bottles of wine, with nearly all swallowed by the domestic market. Eli says they have sent some to China and have undertaken market exploratio­ns primarily in the AsiaPacifi­c region.

“It's an aspect of our business we're currently developing, but the challenges are our size and scale. We can scale up but because we have a biological product, you can't just turn on a tap and bottle more feijoa wine. Some of the export markets want amounts that just make us laugh, so it's about finding the right partners who understand our size and scalabilit­y.”

Lothlorien Wines are widely available across New Zealand in over 300 supermarke­ts, liquor, and specialty stores, bars, restaurant­s, and online. Both Eli and Dale admit fruit wine is a tough market, as wine lovers generally think only of grape-based wines.

Then there's feijoa's love it or loathe it factor. Their wine has a delicate flavour but it's not as strongly perfumed as the fresh fruit, and there's no grainy flesh that puts

■ some people off eating feijoas.

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