Ripe and Ready: How ‘Evil Geniuses’ Got Us Hooked on Avocados
Think back to when you saw your first avocado. If you were born before the advent of Instagram, perhaps it was in the supermarket, exotic and dark and knobbly as a dragon’s egg. Maybe you, or your parents, attempted a chi-chi dinner party some time in the 1980s, and served up halves so hard that, once you had eaten the flaccid prawn cocktail filling, you needed to saw through them with a steak knife. It seems impossible, now that you can’t go on Instagram without seeing someone’s mushy brunch, but there was a time before everyone was eating avocados. Now, avocado toast is so ubiquitous you can get it in some McDonald’s; so mainstream is the green fruit that the fashion world has declared it “overcado”. But the rest of us, the ones who haven’t heard that the avocado is newly uncool, are only just getting started.
This could become a problem. An article in the Grocer warns that demand is outstripping supply, which has been made worse because of poor harvests in avocado-producing countries. Reynolds, a leading fruit and vegetable supplier, has seen about 30% growth in demand for avocado in the past year (before, it was growing by about 10% a year). “We have almost unprecedented demand,” says Steve Rudge, the head of procurement. “Normally that wouldn’t be a problem. But we’re coming off the back end of the Peruvian season, and it’s not been a classic season.”
The effect of the El NiÃ±o weather pattern has had an impact on the harvest in Peru. The avocados we buy in the UK are now starting to come from Israel and Spain, but production from those countries “is 30% down”, Rudge says, caused by the very high temperatures across Europe this summer, which put avocado trees under a lot of stress. “So we’ve got a double whammy – there is terrific demand coupled with what looks like a relatively restricted supply over the next four or five months.” He doesn’t think we’ll necessarily see fewer in the shops, but price could well be affected. “Over the past three or four years, everywhere around the world that can grow avocados, people are looking to produce them, so we’ve had a lot of new countries come in relatively recently.” Zimbabwe is one example, he says, but “even with new countries coming on board, we’re not catching up quickly enough.
It could get far worse. In June, Peru was given a licence to export avocados to China. “The Chinese market has only just discovered avocados,” Rudge says. “And Chinese consumption will put even more pressure on world demand.”
The rise and rise of the avocado has been extraordinary. In part, it is down to improved deliciousness – a key development has been the improvements suppliers and retailers have made. Avocados arrive in the UK hard, unripe and inedible. Like bananas, they reach maturity in ripening facilities (big heated units with ethylene gas) – hence the more expensive “ripe and ready” varieties. “The skill is to get it to a perfect level of ripeness, and I think we’ve done a much better job over the past two or three years in getting that,” Rudge says. “This speeds up consumption because you’re more likely to buy it again if it is perfect. And you may end up buying more because you’re not leaving it to ripen in the fruit bowl for days.”
Anne Murcott, a professorial research associate at the food studies centre of Soas, University of London, suggests the avocado’s success owes quite a lot to clever marketing. “If the ideas of [something being a] superfood are repeated sufficiently frequently, and it is talked about from posh dinner parties to Weight Watchers, you see how things swirl around.” She has started noticing most supermarkets now include bags of avocados in their value ranges. “That implies that they can sell them to a wide range [of people].” She points out that high-street chain restaurants usually have a “superfood salad” option with avocado; sandwich shops stuff it between bread. In one small fruit, you can see a glimpse of how the modern food industry works – year-round availability, improved retailing, the elevated status of so-called “superfoods”, the influence of social media and millions spent on marketing.
The avocado has a long history of being rebranded and marketed. In the early 20th century, as NPR reports, a group of Californian farmers got together to work out how to take advantage of the blossoming popularity of a new crop they were growing. People in Central and South America had been eating the ahuacate since at least 500BC, but Americans wouldn’t be able to pronounce that. Its translation – testicle – wasn’t too appetising. Nor was the name alligator pear, which it had become known by. They came up with “avocado”. Californian growers have been funding large advertising campaigns since the early 1960s (the US market is huge, thanks to clever marketing, the large Hispanic population and growth of “lifestyle” bloggers).
In the UK in the 1970s and 1980s, avocados were thought of as a “winter fruit”, sold by Israeli producers. Then South African growers worked together to change perceptions so we would think of the avocado as a year-round food, and to establish a new market. In 1995, they engaged a British PR firm to start a campaign.
“Initially, a lot of it was around fairly basic consumer education – what is this and how do you eat it?” says Rob Metcalfe, the chief executive of the communications agency Richmond Towers, which ran the campaign. He was getting reports of people biting into the tough, green skin and saying it didn’t taste like a pear – they were known as “avocado pears” then. They produced leaflets and recipe booklets and took journalists to South Africa to visit growers. “We gradually started talking more and more about the health benefits.” He was also working with retailers to encourage them to display the produce better. “All those things worked pretty well in combination to build the market over the years.”
The campaign was wound up in 2013 (although other countries have their own campaigns and PR agents, including ProHass, Peru’s hass avocado producers’ association). “We didn’t need to do any more, really. Avocados were selling about £13m [worth] in 1995 when we began, and by 2013 it was about £50m.” Is he some kind of evil genius? He laughs. “It’s one of those really nice opportunities to work on a really good product, with fantastic farmers and growers, that was ripe” – he pauses to apologise for the pun – “for finding a market over here.”
Millions have been spent on marketing avocados to us (Metcalfe thinks the total cost of the campaign was around £2m), and even if we’re not talking about fizzy drinks here, it’s worth keeping in mind the nudges that make us choose to buy what we do. “We usually say most fruit and vegetables are ‘super’, and we shouldn’t paint anything in one light because it can lead consumers to overeat certain food,” says Anna Daniels, a spokeswoman for the British Dietetic Association. Avocados are nutritious – they contain vitamins E and B, folate, potassium, fibre and some protein. They are, though, quite high in calories, about 190 calories/100g, because of their high fat content – even though most of that is monounsaturated fat, “one of the fats that is supposed to lower cholesterol and raise our ‘good’ cholesterol level”, says Daniels. Some large avocados, she says, “weigh about 200g, so that’s almost 400 calories and 40g of fat.”
The avocado industry has benefited from the decline in the idea that all fat is bad for us, although Daniels points out “saturated fat is still known to raise cholesterol. Avocado still contains some saturated fat – about 4g per 100g.” Avocados are good for us, she says, “but what you should always be looking at is balance. With the rise of wellness bloggers and Instagram, everyone is adding avocado to their Nutribullet with their tablespoon of coconut oil.” Adding half an avocado to a smoothie adds about 140 calories. “If you are also adding milk and other fruits, the calories soon add up. It’s not a bad thing for people to be interested in their health, and a bit of avocado on wholegrain toast is a healthy snack, but it’s about making sure it doesn’t become an obsession.”
Chef Martin Morales’ view: ‘What took you so long?’
Britain has finally woken up to the creamy, nutty joy that is avocado. I’ve seen snap after snap of friends’ avo-toast popping up on my phone. I’ve watched avocado dishes fly out of the door of my Peruvian restaurants, Ceviche and Andina, in London. I just wonder: what took you so long?
I grew in the suburbs of Lima with an avocado tree in my garden. As a kid, I would take the rich pickings from our garden to my auntie Carmela’s house and she would show me what to do with them. I learned to use them in everything, sweet or savoury. Stuffed avocados, mashed avocados in a fried egg sandwich – actually, mashed avocado with anything. Avocado and chicken stew, avocado soup, avocado ceviche – even avocado ice-cream.
I’m not alone; most Peruvians are crazy about avocados – we grow the best in the world. We call them paltas; when we say a person is palteado, we mean that person is bewildered, drunk with avo love. I took my passion for paltas to my restaurants, where they are valued for their nutritional content as well as their deliciousness. Peruvian avocado provides nearly 20 important vitamins and minerals, plus monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats – the good fats. Which means almost guilt-free ice-cream, right?
How to buy and store
Look for an avocado that feels heavy for its size and that has not been bumped or bruised (Peruvian hass avocados have rough skins and a dark green colour that is almost black when ripe). Hold it in the palm of your hand and squeeze it gently. If it yields just a little, it’s ready to eat. If you’re still not sure, flick the stem with your finger and it should come off easily. Store avocados at room temperature or in a paper bag to help ripen, and check them daily. For quicker ripening, place in a paper bag of rice. Never refrigerate.
(Makes ½ litre)
250ml full-fat milk
100g caster sugar
1 vanilla pod, split lengthways, or 1 tsp vanilla extract
3 egg yolks
2 ripe avocados, diced
Juice of 2 limes
250ml double cream
Put the milk and half the sugar in a saucepan with the vanilla. Stir over low heat until the sugar has dissolved, then allow the milk to come almost to the boil. Take off the heat and leave to infuse until cooled.
Meanwhile, put the egg yolks in a bowl with the rest of the sugar and whisk until thick and mousse-like. Reheat the milk over a medium heat until it again almost comes to the boil, then pour over the whisked eggs and sugar. Stir, then pour the mixture back into the saucepan. Stir over a very gentle heat until it has thickened – it is the right consistency when you can draw a line with your finger across the back of a coated wooden spoon. Leave the vanilla pod in and chill the custard thoroughly.
Puree the avocado flesh and lime juice in a blender and stir into the custard. Strain the mixture and add the cream. Taste, add more sugar if necessary, pour into an ice-cream machine and churn until thick and frozen. If you don’t have an ice-cream machine, freeze in a large, shallow container, whisking every 30 minutes until it is the right consistency. Garnish with chocolate and caramel shards and fresh mint.