Some of the juiciest summer gems from the West are heading our way.
WE may not love the sun very much, especially when it beats down on us and makes our make-up run. But in other parts of the world, they couldn’t welcome the summer sun more.
After all, it’s all about longer, warmer days; green, blossoming plants; beach vacations and some would say, best of all, fat, juicy and bright summer fruits such as peaches, strawberries and cherries.
Although there is no summer season in Malaysia, it doesn’t stop the locals from enjoying these fruits as well.
“You’d be surprised how popular they are, despite being significantly more expensive,” says Carrefour marketing and communications director Low Ngai Yuen.
“Its main appeal, obviously, is the limited availability factor. They are also tasty and nutritious,” she adds. At Carrefour outlets, the more popular summer fruits are plums, peaches and nectarines, mostly from California. “These are available where there’s a demand.”
The hypermarket chain sells approximately six to eight tonnes worth of summer fruits each season.
MBG fruit stall founder Adnan Lee, says that cherries, grapes and peaches are the bestsellers at his outlets. A huge part of the appeal lies in the great variety.
“There are generally two types of fruit plants here in Malaysia. One is the big, rooted tree that will bear fruits once or twice a year such as mango or rambutan trees.Then, there are those that have to be replanted after harvesting, such as pineapples, bananas and watermelon,” he explains.
In contrast, there are about 200 to 300 different varieties of summer fruits, of which mostly are stone fruits (a single-seed fruit surrounded by a large protective structure) available each season.
“Each variety will fruit for less than a week in the entire year. Once the harvest is over, it will be time for another variety to ripen,” Lee says. As such, it’s typical for a single variety to occupy only about 5% of a particular orchard or farm.
Some of the main producers of summer fruits in the months of June to August are the United States (California, specifically), Spain, China, South Korea and Japan.
Korean and Japanese fruits are not as widely available due to their high prices. “The high cost of land and expensive living standards make their produce too expensive for some markets,” adds Lee.
Then, in the months of December till February, it would be the Southern hemisphere’s turn for summer and the fruits come from countries like Australia, South Africa and Chile.
During these months, the price of cherries skyrocket as transportation is resource intensive.
“There’s a large demand from China, where they are presented as premium Chinese New Year gifts,” says Lee.
It may take up to three weeks for the fruits to get here by ship. For example, a container ship may originate from California, make a stop in Japan, and then head to China, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore before it finally docks and unloads in Malaysia.
Due to the arduous journey, only the hardier fruits can be transported via ship.
Cherries, on the other hand, will be soaked in a hydrocooler where its exterior is firmed up by water kept at 0˚C. Later, they are carted off to a cold room where it stays for another four hours to ensure that the temperature is further reduced. And then, the cherries are kept in a warehouse where it will be packed for shipment.
Within four to five days of being plucked from the tree, these cherries would arrive at foreign retail outlets and sold to consumers.
Currently, 1kg of cherries sells for RM80 at MBG. Lee says that he has seen the price touch RM138.
Is air freight the reason why cherries are so expensive here?
“For every kg of air-freighted goods, at least RM10 goes into the transportation,” he points out, adding that it raises costs 40 times more compared with ship transportation.
The grass is always greener
Why then, are Malaysians willing to fork out so much? Is it a case of the grass being greener on the other side of the globe?
Janice Ng, a product specialist who has been living in Toronto, Canada for the last 10 years, believes so. She confesses that instead of craving for summer fruits, she misses tropical fruits. “The options here are limited and boring. The choices are just so much better in Malaysia, and I realise how spoilt we’ve been and how we’ve taken things for granted!” says Ng, 30, adding that she misses mangosteens the most. “Four tiny ones cost CA$8 (RM25) here,” she laments.
Fong Lai-Lyn, a PR executive for Malaysian Timber Council in London for the past three years, says that she looks forward to fruits at this time of the year.
“They taste best during summer!” she exclaims, adding that the strawberries are “to die for”. A box of strawberries, blueberries or raspberries cost only £1 (RM4.90) in London, according to Fong. A punnet of five to six medium-sized peaches range from £1.50 (RM7.30) to £3 (RM14.80).
This is in stark comparison to the RM20 or so that we pay for a box of strawberries in Malaysia. She feels it’s a matter of perception. “Some people feel that if they can buy foreign fruits, it implies they can afford a more expensive lifestyle. Expensive tropical fruits tells people that you’re cosmopolitan and have an appreciation for the exotic,” says Fong, 31, who has in London for three years.
Apart from that, one should also consider the high carbon footprint these fruits chalk up to get to our stores. Yasmin Rasyid, founder of environmental organisation EcoKnights in Malaysia, says that while she understands the appeal of foreign fruits, she feels that more credit should be given to local fruits.
“Sure, fruits such as strawberries and blueberries tend to evoke a special feeling because you don’t see them that often. It’s also understandable that hotels, or food and beverage outlets need foreign fruits to add variety. “But for the ordinary household, eating local produce will be better for health and on the wallet,” stresses the mother of two. A trained biologist, she also feels that the high nutrition levels of local, tropical fruits make them a good source of vitamins and fibre.
“In addition, they can minimise our exposure to preservatives or ripening agents that some foreign fruits are subjected to,” she says.
Pick of the crop
How do you go about selecting the best summer fruits for your platter? Here are some tips from MBG’s Lee:
Peaches: A vibrant colour is an indication of freshness. A dull sheen may mean that it has been kept for a long time. It should also be so plump that juices will run along the knife when you slice it. Do not keep peaches (or plums and nectarines) in the refrigerator as this affects its quality. Store in cool, dry place.
Strawberries: Look out for a bright, red colour. Strawberries with stalks (these are about 50% more expensive) are usually the choicest picks from a particular farm in terms of size and quality, but there’s not that much difference in taste with stalk-less strawberries.
Cherries: Look out for a fresh, green-coloured stem. Short stems indicate that it is from an early harvest. The darker the colour, the riper it is. Some dents are acceptable but look out for cracks, as this indicates rain that could affect the cherry’s quality.
Grapes: Look out for fresh, green stalks. This usually means that it has been transported by air. Ship-freighted grapes have drier, more brittle stalks.