The avocado has risen from Seventies dinner-party showpiece to breakfast’s most instagrammed item. Writer Mina Holland charts our healthy little friend's soaring status.
My granny, like many mothers, used food to spread love to her offspring. Whenever we visited, she channeled her energies into feeding us, starting with a breakfast of half an avocado – skin on, stone removed – with a slick of Worcestershire sauce.
This is my earliest memory of avocado. My mother remembers going to restaurants with her parents in the Seventies and eating avocado stuffed with prawn cocktail, a dish that represented the dizzy heights of sophistication. Fans of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar might recall a similar arrangement of avocado and crab meat at the Ladies’ Day Luncheon, hinting at the exoticism and choice available in post-Depression America.
A staple in Central America for millennia, the avocado pear only arrived on supermaket shelves in the UK in the Sixties and even in those swinging times it was considered as daring as the sexual revolution. It soon became a popular mainstay for home dinner parties and championed by the likes of chef Robert Carrier (think calves liver with avocado) – something you might expect to emerge from the Fawlty Towers kitchen, doused in Thousand Island dressing.
Times, however, have changed. You’d have to be under a social media moratorium to not know that come the weekend, Instagram becomes a sea of luscious green as the hungry and the hungover post photos of their brunch-time smashed avo on toast (the bestselling dish across the Soho House Group’s restaurants) topped with a poached egg and cursory squirt of Sriracha hot sauce. (There are more than 2 million posts with the hashtag #avocado while #avocadolove and #avocadoporn have made recent inroads too.)
It’s our unabashed devotion to this green, pulpy fruit that is fuelling the nation’s new crush. In 2012, it was reported the UK avocado market was worth £51m. According to Google UK, there has been a 5,000% increase in searches for ‘avocado’ since the middle of 2013. Most searches occur in January (the post-indulgence health kick, we assume) and the search terms give a telling glimpse into the nation’s culinary tastes. “Smashed avocado recipes” and “avocado smoothies” have soared alongside “avocado on toast” – another regular being tapped into our iPads come Saturday.
And who among us has not squeezed our local supermarket’s ‘Ripe & Ready’ avocados with frustration, beating off rival shoppers for the single yielding packet? Or discovered, to much distress, that our just-bought avocado has turned into a kind of speckled brown mush overnight? And restaurants are tapping into this trend. From avocado and rice fritters from Ceviche chef Martin Morales to Japanese concoctions such as sesame-seed crusted tuna on avocado in the newly opened Amaru in London’s St Katherine Dock, the once undistinguished ingredient is finding its way to the top of the food chain. There’s even a change.org campaign to introduce an avocado emoji.
Looking back at my own childhood in the Nineties, avocados were neither glamorous nor every day. I do remember being passed a note from a friend in history class that read, “Did you know half an avocado contains 14g of fat?” and thinking I really shouldn’t eat so many of them.
On one hand my friend wasn’t wrong: avocado is high in fat, but what she didn’t know was that it’s the good kind – monosaturated ones – which can help lower cholesterol levels when eaten regularly. In fact they are packed with nutritional brilliance. Avocados are bursting with protein, omega 3 fatty acids, and 20 essential nutrients such as potassium (more than a banana), vitamin E and various B vitamins, including folic acid. Jasmine Hemsley, of Hemsley + Hemsley, says, “As our understanding of the role of fats has changed, avocados have shot up in people’s estimation along with coconut oil and nuts. They are rich in nutrients and deeply satiating.”
Naturally, this makes them a winner with the ‘green and clean’ crowd. On Google, the word avocado is now virtually synonymous with the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Ella Woodward as well as the Hemsley sisters. In this age of food-group-excluding diets, there’s a lot to be said for a high-fat, antioxidant, vegetarian, gluten- and dairy-free ingredient that also tastes seriously good. “They have this amazing ability to make things creamy,” says Jasmine, “and they’re also a great alternative in dairy-free recipes.” Suddenly a book I read as a child, Avocado Baby by John Burningham, in which a weak infant’s mother feeds him so much mashed avocado that he becomes a tough guy in nappies, doesn’t seem so implausible. They are, quite literally, a super food.
A few years ago, avocado would hardly have counted as a kitchen staple, but it has now transformed into one of my go-tos. I’m seldom without a Hass in my fruit bowl, ripening resplendently as it anticipates a future on spaghetti with plenty of olive oil, pecorino and parsley, or perhaps with lime, onion and chilli for guacamole, or in a salad with a light, lemony buttermilk dressing, or even in a raw chocolate ganache… I could go on. I don’t think there’s anything with which it wouldn’t taste great – and that includes Worcestershire sauce.
Mina Holland is editor at Guardian Cook. Her book The Edible Atlas: Around The World In 39 Cuisines (£18.99, Canongate) is out now.
Know your avocados
There are 900 types of avocado but only a few make it to the UK. Blame that on its inability to travel…
Buying an avocado is beset with problems. Typically the process goes something like this: “Too hard, too hard, too hard. Mushy…” Commercial avocados are harvested under-ripe so that they ripen en route to the shop or in your fruit bowl. They need warmth for this to happen, so never store them in the fridge – just let them sit out. But never leave them by the oven or anywhere hot.
Chef Thomasina Miers suggests putting an under-ripe avocado in a brown paper bag to quicken the ripening process. Annoyingly, you can’t always tell by the skin colour whether an avocado has reached its peak ripeness as only a Hass avocado will turn purply black when it’s ready to eat. Polpo head chef Florence Knight explains the best method for testing for ripeness, and it doesn’t involve overzealous prodding: “Gently squeeze the avocado in the cup of your hand, not with your fingers. It should have a light give in
Hass: This is the variety we eat the most of in the UK as it travels well in chilled containers and has a tough skin that turns black on ripening. Its rich, creamy pulp and nutty flavour means it works just as well on its own as it does in complex recipes.
Pinkerton: You can identify this by its elongated shape, long neck and thick, easypeel green skin. Due to its thin neck, the top ripens first so you have to cut it into slices rather than from top to bottom. The flesh is clean but not creamy.
Fuerte: This green-skinned avocado is hard to peel, unless the fruit is very ripe. The skin is thin, which also makes it harder to ship. You need to test for ‘give’ in the flesh before trying to eat it.
Bacon: This Californian variety is mild, with a yellow/green colour and rounder shape. Again, they’re ‘green-skin’, so will need a firm squeeze to test if they’re ripe. The flesh is robust though so great for avocado fries (breadcrumbed avocado slices, deep fried).