They are referred to in some parts as tree tomatoes, and New Zealanders have been known to call them vegetables. Egg- shaped and firm-skinned, their bisection reveals a glistening jewel-like centre, dark seeds and flesh that varies in colour.
My visit to Belle ends with her thrusting into my arms a paper bag of this exotic fruit; Susie, a more practical woman perhaps than I, declines the offer on the grounds that she simply does not have time to make chutney. But I am intrigued. I had only ever used tamarillos as cheesecake garnishes, gleaming crimson slices I alternated with limey discs of kiwifruit to bedeck an otherwise common- or-garden lemon version. Here was a challenge, then.
Tamarillos thrive in sub-tropical areas like Australia and New Zealand although are native to South America. They belong to the Solonaceae (deadly nightshade) family, which includes tomato, potato, capsicum and eggplant and, because the fast-growing plant is also exceedingly fruitful, gluts of them are common. A lot of chutney is made – facilitated by their high content of pectin!
They come in yellow, orange, red, purple and striped, the former two being the sweetest. Some say that the flavour is a cross between a passionfruit and a tomato; I, spooning the smooth flesh out of the halves and into my mouth, enjoying the crunch of the seeds in the same way I do with passionfruit, was reminded more of a young mango. And yet the name tamarillo was actually chosen by the New Zealand Tree Tomato Promotions Council in 1967 in a bid to raise its exotic appeal, convey a kinship with tomatoes which they believed the fruit resembled, and combine that with the Spanish word amarillo meaning ‘yellow’.
Now is their time. And of course, as research reveals, there is so much more that can be done with the fruit than simply transform it into chutneys or jams. Eating a lot of them raw is a great source of vitamins, especially Vitamin C, and iron, as well as being low in calories (three words we love to hear). Then there is the layer of tang and texture they will add to a tomato- based sauce for pasta or stews: coarsely chop the flesh of about eight and add it to a litre of tomato passata along with chopped garlic, a dash of balsamic vinegar and salt and simmer for about half an hour. (Yes, strain those crunchy seeds unless you want their texture as well.)
Or poach them for visually lovely and simple desserts. (The skin, by the way, is bitter and inedible and easy enough to remove with a small sharp knife, but even easier if you first dunk the fruit into boiling water for 10–20 seconds, after which it should slip off effortlessly.) Slice eight peeled red tamarillos into 1cm rounds and set aside. Halve a vanilla pod, scrape its seeds into a saucepan and add the pod, one cup of caster sugar, one cup of water and two tablespoons of honey. Stir over low heat to dissolve sugar then increase heat and simmer, uncovered, for five minutes. There is your exquisite honey and vanilla syrup into which you will drop the tamarillo slices and leave them gently simmering for a couple more minutes. Leave them to cool in the syrup, then serve.
A red-wine poaching is every bit as successful, by combining 700g white sugar with 350ml red wine, vanilla bean again split and seeds scraped and 250ml water in a saucepan and bringing it all to a simmer. This time halve the peeled tamarillos lengthwise and drop them in to simmer towards tenderness for up to ten minutes. Remove fruit from syrup and reduce syrup over high heat to about 800ml. Cool, pour over tamarillos and chill for two hours, then serve with your favourite chocolate mousse.
Or make chutney!