GROWING YUZU can be a perilous business, and Horowhenua growers Neville and Junko Chun have the scars to prove it.
They've been stabbed many times by thorns on the trees of the tangy, sour citrus fruit.
The couple has a one-hectare yuzu orchard where around 350 trees yield about 2000kg of certified-organic fruit annually for their NZYuzu business.
"Yuzu thorns are so huge, long, sharp and hard that the tip will go through a leather glove," says Neville, a third-generation Chinese New Zealander. "We wear gloves all the way up our arms, with a nylon sleeve over that for double protection," says Junko, who is originally from Japan. "And we have huge kneecap covers because you can get injured kneeling down to pick, weed or prune. I wear a helmet because you can get stabbed when you stand up."
The fruit looks like a large, lumpy yellow mandarin, and has a sharp, unique tang: a hybrid of lime, lemon and grapefruit, and is used in Japanese cuisine - in ponzu sauce, for example. NZYuzu is the largest - and first-ever - grower of yuzu in New Zealand (there are two other, smaller operations).
It's been a long time coming.
"I feel like yuzu brings Japan to New Zealand," says Junko, who missed its unique taste after moving here but found it impossible to locate any. Horticulturalist Neville began looking for some, and eventually found a citrus grower who was glad to see the back of the plants.
"He said, 'You can have the lot cheaply - they're terrible thorny trees, the fruit's sour, no one wants it?"
They planted the orchard in 2006. After losing their first two rows of plantings to rabbits, they erected barriers around the trees and put in netting as a fence. The barriers worked, and now the couple harvest green fruit in April, and ripe fruit in May and June, picking it themselves to avoid injuries to both the soft fruit and to pickers.
Now they sell fresh harvested Yuzu online and supply Moore Wilson Fresh in Tory St, Wellington with pre-packaged Yuzu fruit.
It's also sought-after by NZ food producers - chocolatiers, gin distilleries and breweries.
And at establishments including Moore Wilson's in Wellington, and Farro Fresh in Auckland. Commercial customers are key to the business; they supply yuzu to more than 25 restaurants, including Monique Fiso's groundbreaking restaurant Hiakai in Wellington and Nic Watt's contemporary Japanese eatery Masu in Auckland.
Wellington craft brewery Garage Project was their first-ever customer, buying the entire 50kg crop - and has since made three award-winning brews using fresh NZ grown yuzu. Last year the Chuns collaborated with Greytown's Olive Press to produce the award-winning Midori Yuzu Olive Oil.
High demand means the Chuns are extending the operation and starting orchards in Gisborne and Nelson this year.
They also cultivate and sell ume: a plum-like "Japanese apricot", which is often salted (umeboshi) or used in preserves and liquor (umeshu).
Yuzu is special. Fifteen years ago, few New Zealanders knew what it was. Now, many do.
"I've enjoyed bringing something initially 'strange' into the market," Neville says
"Now we all have yuzu to enjoy."
Garage Project's Yuzu Wabi Sabi Sour was the first ever Yuzu beer to be produced in NZ. It won a Gold Medal at the NZ Brewers Guild Awards that season ...