It's all gone pear shaped

Revered by the Aztecs, abused by the Seventies, loved by nutritionists - the avocado's been with us for the past 10,000 years. But only now, with a no-peel variety hitting the shelves, has it truly come of age. Ed Caesar salutes nature's finest fruit
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Avocado. It doesn't sound like a fruit with a past. It sounds, quite frankly, mundane: the mainstay of the garnish; the mildly guilt-inducing snack; the sandwich filler. Alligator Pear is more like it. Call an avocado by its less common American name, and one starts to understand the eventful 10,000-year journey of the dented lump at the bottom of your Sainsbury's bag. Politicians have debated its merits, sailors have used it as an aphrodisiac, and Nero made one a consul. All right, the last one is made up. But the rest are true, and they are only staging posts in an epic story.

Avocado. It doesn't sound like a fruit with a past. It sounds, quite frankly, mundane: the mainstay of the garnish; the mildly guilt-inducing snack; the sandwich filler. Alligator Pear is more like it. Call an avocado by its less common American name, and one starts to understand the eventful 10,000-year journey of the dented lump at the bottom of your Sainsbury's bag. Politicians have debated its merits, sailors have used it as an aphrodisiac, and Nero made one a consul. All right, the last one is made up. But the rest are true, and they are only staging posts in an epic story.

Like any renegade, the avocado is hard to pigeonhole. The whole fruit/vegetable debate which has dogged this green goddess its entire life (just to clear it up, it's a fruit) is the tip of the iceberg. The avocado has, it seems, become a paradox, and a stain on our dietary conscience. It is, by being both nutritious and fattening, a totem of the mixed-message malaise of our health-conscious society.

Take this exchange between Jim Lough, MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, and Colin Challen, MP for Morley and Rothwell, which took place during a Commons debate on obesity in February 2005. "[Let us talk] about the avocado conundrum", said Mr Lough. "An avocado can be good for people, but too many can be very fattening. I gather that it is also very good as a facial scrub. None the less, the system can be too simplistic: the question is not only what is an unhealthy food, but what is an unhealthy diet."

"I would urge the Government", rejoined Mr Challen, "when they commit themselves to these proposals, to see how the label on the back can be improved so that if someone looks at an avocado, and the label puts it in the middle or the bottom bracket, they will think, "That's a surprise. What does it say on the back?"

But it was not ever so. In the avocado's Aztec beginnings, where a man called a spade a spade (or a chuatechl, as the Aztecs would actually have called a spade), the fruit served one, glorious purpose: It was an aphrodisiac.

Perhaps that's why the Aztecs called it ahuacatl: "the testicle". Early Spanish explorers imagined that the natives had named it thus because the fruit bore a similar shape to the male reproductive organs, although it might be time to seek medical help if your ahuacatls start looking anything like avocados. What the Spanish did find was that the Aztecs were serious about the fruit's Viagra-esque properties, and that their idea of a romantic night out would typically include a gentle stroll to a human sacrifice followed by a candle-lit avocado salad for two.

It was one such Spanish observer, Pedro de Cieza de Leon, who first adapted the Aztec word ahuacatl to become the Spanish aguacate, in 1550. And from the Spanish aguacate we derive the contemporary suburban guacamole. But it was not until 1696 that Sir Henry Sloane appropriated aguacate into the English language, calling the fruit the "avocado" for the first time. Sloane's descendants have been tucking away the green muck ever since. Aside from its libidinous properties, which

have oddly fallen by the wayside in marketing campaigns of recent centuries (note to the nation's greengrocers: you're missing a trick there), the avocado proved itself a versatile commodity for the early white settlers in Latin America. One bright spark discovered that the stone in the middle of the avocado emits a liquid, which, when exposed to air, becomes an indelible red-black ink. And they soon put the ink to good use, sending home reports of the culinary delights they were enjoying on the other side of the Atlantic. One Spanish historian, Fernandez de Oviedo, filed this rave review of the latest ex-pat dining fad from Columbia in 1526. "In the centre of the fruit is a seed like a peeled chestnut", wrote Oviedo. "And between this and the rind is the part which is eaten, which is abundant, and is a paste similar to butter and of very good taste." It's not quite AA Gill, but you get the idea.

It was not until 1672 that the world received its first English language review of the exotic fruit sensation. "It is", wrote W Hughes, King Charles II's physician, from Jamaica, "one of the most rare and pleasant fruits of the island. It nourisheth and strengtheneth the body, corroborating the spirits and procuring lust exceedingly."

For the next 200 years, the avocado was the preserve of foreign emissaries, transatlantic seamen - who ate their green "midshipman's butter" on biscuits - and upper-class explorers called Rupert. But it could not hide its light under a bushel forever. The avocado truly arrived when it started to appear on the tables of European royalty at the turn of the 20th Century.

And, where in-bred Royals go, aspirational suburbanites will follow. The avocado became an increasingly common fruit on the tables of Britain from the late Sixties and into the Seventies.

But before it could make the leap from the silver trays of livery men to the hostess trolleys of Liverpool, it had to shed its saucy image, and growers were forced to play down the aphrodisiac angle. Naturally, they never revealed how the avocado got its name. Imagine thinking about that when you're putting it on a cocktail stick.

And so the PR battle was won. By the 1970s, the avocado was a byword for middle-class culinary sophistication (think Kiwi fruit in the 1980s or rocket in the 1990s) and the nation's housewives were damned if they were going to let a dish go by without a little green mulch on the side. The consumer boom was driven by burgeoning avocado exports from Central America, California, and, in particular Israel.

In the Seventies, avocados formed the beating heart of Israel's new economy. As the deserts bloomed, sales boomed. Soon they were exporting up to 80,000 tonnes of the things each year. (Mexico is now the world's biggest exporter of avocados, shipping more than 1 million tonnes a year.)

These were the golden years. The avocado, it seemed, could be anything and everything, equally happy as a side dish or the main event. It was a starter, where it mixed uneasily with pineapple, prawn and cheddar alike. It was a main course - stuffed avocado anyone? It was, improbably, a pudding. Before anyone knew it, avocados were standing in the general election

Such green-fingered frippery would have the grande dame of the kitchen, Elizabeth David, turning in her grave. In her book of Christmas dishes, she takes time out to rant against misuse of the decidedly un-Christmassy avocado. Stuffing them with crab or shrimp, or sprinkling them with spicy dressing is "detestable... just awful". Her preferred method was far simpler. Add lemon juice, salt, and olive oil, and let the avocado do the talking.

And it wasn't just Britons who couldn't decide what to do with them. In metropolitan California and all over Brazil, avocado was used an apparently delicious topping to vanilla ice cream. To this day, Filipinos like to puree theirs, add them to sugar and milk, and drink avocado shakes as a post-dinner delicacy.

In Latin America, where this whole juicy story began, people still prize the avocado as a king among fruits. In Chile, Colombia and Brazil, the avocado is wrapped and given as a wedding present to the bride. It's a custom that could easily catch on in this country - imagine, you could have your wedding list at Waitrose.

Yet in 2005, the British relationship with the avocado has become more complex. We are stranded in a mire of attitudes and opinions.

On the one hand, we are told that avocados are a "superfood", the current holy grail of the food industry. On the other, the Government suggests placing health stickers on avocados, warning people of the amount of fat contained within. The Guinness Book of Records has the avocado sitting proudly at the top of its "most nutritious fruit" category; meanwhile pollsters gravely report that the avocado is the most hated food among children. Our cultural response to the avocado is equally ambiguous. We may blush to remember the avocado's ubiquitous Seventies "moment", but it is a foodstuff which won't leave us alone.

Anthony Worrall Thompson recalls how he recently re-introduced the Seventies bistro staple "Avocado and Prawns" to his upmarket restaurant, The Notting Grill. "I put it on the menu as a piss-take and it's now the number one seller. People are in denial." Maybe, but if you can eat it with a sprinkling of irony and a spritz of balsamic vinegar, no one's going to laugh at you.

Which brings us to Marks & Spencer's latest retail innovation, the Chilean Midnight avocado. Not only is it smaller and smoother than the tried and tested Hass variety, it has 20 per cent fewer calories, and you don't even have to peel it to enjoy it. "In Chile, it's extremely popular", says Marks & Spencer's supplier Ed Moorhouse. "They just eat it on its own, like we would a banana or an apple."

The British already eat huge quantities of avocado. Now all M&S has to do is convince us that, on top of our mealtime consumption, eating avocado as a between-meals nibble is - like sipping Vimto or eating a Trio - the ultimate retro snack.

10 Things to do with an avocado

* To make a face mask, mash half an avocado with three tbsp of honey. Leave for five minutes.

* Use as a natural sunscreen by spreading over the body.

* Add avocado to ice cream for extra richness.

* Mashed avocado makes excellent baby food, with more vitamin B1, B2, niacin, folacin, potassium and magnesium per serving than any other fruits or vegetables.

* To grow the plant use three toothpicks, suspend a washed stone broad end down over a water-filled glass to cover an inch of the seed. Put in a warm place out of direct sun and replenish water as needed. You should see roots and a stem in two to six weeks.

* Forget olive oil, avocado oil tastes good drizzled over salad.

* To make soap, mix 12 ounces of avocado with three ounces of coconut, nine ounces of jojoba, two ounces of palm oil and one ounce of shea butter.

* Combine the mashed meat of 2 avocados and a little kelp with 3 tbsp cider vinegar and 1 tsp of lemon juice to make a fast-acting laxative.

* Use mashed avocado to nourish hair and scalp.

* Take knife, cut in half, remove stone, pick up spoon...

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