Autumn treasure 3: Chilean guavas

Chilean guava

10/10/2018 For a few months in 2011 I lived next to a river near Pucón, in the temperate rainforest region of Chile. Large, evergreen shrubs that looked similar to box grew in abundance along the riverbank, and one day I saw a lady with her young son collecting buckets full of the red berries that grew on them. I asked her what they were, and what she used them for. ‘They’re murtillas’, she said, ‘I make jam with them’.

I picked some and ate them. The flavour was like nothing I’d ever tasted before, and I was excited. The next day I went back with a plastic bag to collect more, and so began my first jam-making attempts.

For a while I didn’t know their English name. There is more than one, it turns out, all of which sound like the result of uninspired necessity: strawberry myrtle (this is a name for the shrub, I believe, not the berries); New Zealand cranberry; tazziberry; and ugniberry. The last, at least, is based on its Latin name. I thought the term ‘Chilean guava’ simply referred to the taste of the fruit – it certainly has no similarity in appearance – but since I am not sure I have ever eaten a guava, I couldn’t compare. The shrub is native to Chile, so that part of the name is not in question. Eventually I discovered the plants are in fact related: both guava and Chilean guava are members of the myrtle family. So perhaps this is the most logical name, if not very imaginative.

The berries are red on the outside and white on the inside. They are not overly juicy, have a thick skin and small seeds in the centre that get stuck in your teeth, both of which qualities some people might find off-putting. But I think it makes them more interesting. Their taste is difficult to describe; the closest I can get is to say they taste like sweets.

When I got back to England, I discovered the plant could be obtained online, that they were easy to grow in our climate and not too fussy in their soil requirements. After growing a few in pots, I decided to plant a hedge. I needed at least a few bushes in order to have any chance of making jam in future, and they would have to be kept out of reach of the goats – who, I found out early on, are very partial to Chilean guava plants. Since I had just got rid of all the ‘hedging’ (which was too out of control to be accurately described as such) at the front of the house, and there was stock fencing between the two driveway gates, the solution was obvious. I could plant the new hedge outside the fence, and it would be safe. I knew patience would be required, but the berries were worth it.

From their first year they produced enough berries to keep my hopes up, but I fear it may take at least a decade before I have a real hedge – longer than I was led to expect – and nearly as long before I have enough berries to make jam with.

This week during a holiday on the Isles of Scilly, I discovered two large Chilean guava bushes outside someone’s house, functioning more or less as an untidy hedge. I had passed them once already before I noticed them, for which I chided myself. I looked closely, and saw berries everywhere. If there was any reason to be glad I was visiting in October, this was it.

I couldn’t tell if the house was a holiday let, or permanently lived in, but I thought it was probably the latter. Clearly no one was picking them. I was torn between wanting to knock on their door and exclaim, ‘do you know what treasures you have growing in your hedge?!’, wanting to ask their permission to pick some, and thinking no one would see me, or notice, if I did, so large and thick were the bushes and so plentiful the supply of berries. I was standing directly on a road (or footpath – it isn’t always easy to tell the difference on these islands), and out of cowardice I opted for the last option. I told myself that strictly speaking it is probably not illegal if you are on public land, and I’m sure no one would mind if I picked a handful or two…

In my excitement, I took a photo and sent it to my neighbour, who has always seemed fascinated with my dwarf front hedge, especially since I gave her some berries to try.

‘This is what I hope my hedge will look like eventually!’ I said. ‘Don’t tell anyone, I took a pocketful of berries home with me to have for supper.’
‘Only you would do that!’ she replied.
‘Because I’m the only one who knows how tasty they are?!’
‘Exactly!’

Not even the birds seem to know what they are missing.

The next time I passed, a dog walker approached as I picked a few berries and popped them in my mouth. I greeted her innocently, half worried she might be the owner of the hedge, and carried on walking. I couldn’t resist looking back after a few seconds. I saw her peering into the bushes as she went by, and smiled.

My last meeting with the Chilean guavas was on the day I was leaving. And, finally, I met their owner too.

‘Hello! Did you know these berries are edible?’ I said, launching straight in, as a man in his sixties appeared in front of me on the lane.
‘Yes! Have you tried them?’ he said, about to pick me some.
‘Yes, I used to make jam with them when I lived in Chile, and I’ve planted a hedge outside my house,’ I replied, feeling a little guilty, and hoping this was ambiguous enough not to incriminate me.

He told me that the previous owner of the house called them ‘guniberries’ – a confused version of ‘ugniberries’, I can only assume. A friend of his in town came to collect some every year, he said, and gave him a jar of the jelly she made. I asked him if he knew how old the bushes were. ‘Older than me!’ he replied.

I suppose I’ll be waiting a while then.

‘Come back next year and tell me how your hedge is doing!’ he called after me as I continued on my way down the lane.