Mad about yuzu: the fruit that’s trending
Yuzu is a rather unassuming-looking fruit – some might even call it ugly – but this East Asian citrus variety is now having its moment in the Australian culinary spotlight. After the fruit started popping up on the menus of uber-high-end establishments like Tetsuya’s in Sydney, yuzu soon began making a regular appearance in a growing number of restaurants and cafes across the country, as well playing a starring role in a wide variety of products – from juices, gins and jams to olive oils, syrups and even cosmetics.
Yuzu originated in China, but these days it’s better known for its use in Japanese cuisine, and has been used there to season local dishes for more than a thousand years. The taste can be described as a sweet lemon with a touch of mandarin, and it works beautifully in both sweet and savoury dishes, as well as in drinks of all descriptions.
There are currently only three commercial yuzu growers in Australia, and ordinarily, the fruit’s increasing popularity would no doubt likely lead to more growers joining their ranks. However, if COVID continues to cut its swathe through the food and horticulture industries as it has been, Australia may end up seeing a dwindling domestic supply not just of yuzu, but of many of the more unusual fruits and vegies that some are only just starting to discover.
Why don’t you grow yuzu?
Gerard “Buck” Buchanan of Buck’s Farm in Chillingham, NSW, was the first to start producing yuzu commercially in Australia. Buchanan grows a number of native bush foods and exotic fruits, and was encouraged to try growing yuzu 25 years ago by a visiting tourist.
“We get a lot of travellers from the Gold Coast come to our place,” he says. “This one particular Japanese lady kept asking me, ‘Why don’t you grow yuzu?’ And I tried to look it up, but then I forgot the name. Then she came back to visit me again and said, ‘Have you got that plant yet?’ and this time I asked her to write the name down for me. Then eventually we got a couple of cuttings from a government nursery in NSW.”
Buchanan began with just four yuzu trees, which led to 17 trees, which then grew to over 100. He also grows some other very hard-to-find exotic fruits such as calamondins (also known as calamansi, Philippine lemon or Philippine lime) Buddha’s Hands (another odd-looking citrus with long, finger-like sections – totally worth googling), sudachi (a small, green Japanese citrus), Italian chinotto oranges and bergamot oranges.
Inspiration on the fly
Jane and Brian Casey of Mountain Yuzu, located on the foothills of the Australian Alps in North East Victoria, were originally chestnut growers, and decided to make the switch to yuzu after a disease wiped out their entire chestnut orchard in 2010.
“The government came in and bulldozed all our trees,” Jane says. “It was pretty traumatic at the time. Then we were placed under quarantine so we couldn’t replant for a few years. But we didn’t want to start again from scratch. And so we thought, what else can we do?”
Jane and Brian once made regular trips to Japan (ah, international travel – remember that?), as most of their chestnuts were exported there, and Jane was particularly taken with a drink that was served on Japan Airlines called Sky Time. It was made from yuzu juice.
“So we started looking at yuzu,” Jane says. “We also spoke to a few chefs and said, ‘We’re thinking of growing yuzu. What do you think?’ And they all said, ‘Yes please, please do it!’”
The Caseys planted their first trees in 2012, with their first full crop coming through in 2016. They’ve since won a gold medal in the 2020 delicious. produce awards for their fresh yuzu.
Yuzu trees, like other citrus, are very high-yielding. Chef and organic farmer David Allison of Stix in Sydney’s Marrickville grows fresh produce for his catering and cafe business at Stix Farm on the banks of the Hawkesbury River, and planted six yuzu trees several years ago to supply his business. From those six trees, he can harvest several tonnes of fruit.
“I originally started growing them as a competition with one of my mates, Rockpool chef Roger Barstow,” Allison says. “They had yuzu in a recipe at Rockpool years ago, and he had all these seeds from the yuzu that they were using. He bet me that he could grow yuzu before I did. I was like, ‘I bet you won’t’. Unfortunately he actually won.”
Stix uses its yuzu in a variety of tempting dishes, pickling it to use in curries or with grilled chicken, preserving or zesting it for use in salads and dressings, and well as for toppings on fish. Stix pastry chef Daria Nechiporenko also creates yuzu cruffins and yuzu tarts.
“People like yuzu because it’s something different,” Allison says. “The name yuzu is a bit more premium than lemon. It also has a great aroma, a really lovely strong smell.”
As well as supplying restaurants, Mountain Yuzu sells a wide variety of yuzu products, and recently collaborated with Mount Zero Olives to produce a limited-edition Agrumato-style yuzu pressed olive oil. When Mountain Yuzu sent out word via its newsletter, the oil sold out in 24 hours. (But don’t worry – there’ll be a new batch arriving soon.)
A thorny problem
While yuzu is certainly delicious (and great for the skin – Japanese women bathe with it), the fruit can also be rather tricky to harvest, due to its long, rather fierce thorns.
“They’re really big,” Buchanan says. “So they are hard to harvest, but you’ve just got to spin the fruit around and watch that the thorns don’t go through your hand. And you can’t take a shortcut or try to walk through the trees, because the thorns will go straight through your shirt. I’ve got a LandCruiser here at the moment that’s got two flat tyres – the thorns just go straight through the tyres. They’ll go through the tyres of a ride-on mower as well.”
Jane also says that yuzu is hard work to harvest as the fruit can’t just be picked by hand.
“You can’t just pick the fruit from the tree,” she says. “You actually have to physically cut it off the tree. If you try to pick it, the stem pulls out and you end up with a hole in the fruit.”
Fears for the future
Buchanan normally supplies his yuzu to restaurants and foodservice distributors, and also uses it to make craft beer and cosmetic products. But with the constant shut-downs of hospitality across Australia, demand for his yuzu has slowed from a flood to a trickle.
“Because of the virus, most of my crop was just left to rot on the ground this year,” he says. “We’ve had to find other ways to use the fruit. We extract serum to go in our cosmetics, but it’s not easy, and it’s a very expensive game, too. But we’ve got to do other things to make a living, because we’re going slowly broke. People don’t see the amount of fruit we lose. Right now, I would have tonnes of kaffir lime fruit just rotting in the paddock.”
Buchanan knows he’s not the only grower doing it tough, and that many are doing it tougher – with some local farmers in his area selling up and leaving the industry altogether.
“We don’t really know what’s going to happen; our future is not too good,” he says. “I spent a lifetime to get where I am. Now I’m slowly losing it. And we can’t do anything about it. I’m just hoping that my beer gets going. Or we can use our fruit in a different way, and still hang in there until this is all over. But if we keep losing money, well, I’m too old now to be borrowing money off the bank. So the easiest thing is to just sell up.
“I think, with COVID, we’ve just got to live with it. But we’re not going to stay in the industry if we can’t survive anymore. Then I think it’ll be too late for the people in the city to wake up and go, ‘Wait a minute – where are we going to get all our interesting fruit from?’”
If you’d like to try growing your own yuzu, you can buy yuzu grafted and seedling fruit trees at daleysfruit.com.au