Subaltern’s butter

Happy Easter to all readers – I’ve spent most of the day in the garden, the weather seeming more like late summer than autumn.

Here’s a line or two from My Simple Life in New Zealand by Adela Stewart, originally published in London in 1908. Adela and her husband Hugh built what is now known as Athenree Homestead, between Waihi Beach and Katikati, north of Tauranga. It sent me into the labyrinth that is Google but the results have been fun.

1887: Several young friends and relations came to stay, followed next day by many more – sixty-seven in all – for [her son] Mervyn’s annual Patrick’s Day birthday picnic to the Waihi beach, where we had our lunch with the usual interest of making tea. Then home for supper. Having received them from a friend in Bermuda, Hugh planted two Avocado pear or subaltern’s butter stones, but they had suffered in the voyage and did not even germinate, which we regretted as they are a delicious fruit and were unknown in New Zealand.

This last comment I found particularly interesting as the Katikati area is now one of this country’s prime avocado-growing areas. I hadn’t heard the name “subaltern’s butter” before – alligator pear, yes – and a quick online search reveals that it might be because a subaltern was a subordinate (in the British military) so this was “less than butter” or maybe because subalterns were too lowly to have proper butter.

Photo: Wikipedia

In his 1836 book Recollections of an Artillery Officer: Including Scenes and Adventures in Ireland, America, Flanders and France Benson Earle Hill writes:

I would almost make another voyage to Barbadoes, for the sole purpose of eating the alacada or, as it is usually called, the alligator pear. Fletcher had designated it by another of its titles, when he desired to have plenty of “subaltern’s butter”. … a greenish white pulp, combining an agreeable but very slightly acid, with a rich, mellow, almost marrow-like, flavour. Scooped out and spread on bread, with a little salt and Cayenne pepper, it is an excellent accompaniment to your breakfast; and eaten au naturel with your wine, it proves equally acceptable. The stone is used for the purpose of marking linen, which being placed over it, the letters are punctured with a small needle, whose point extracts, at every application, an indelible dye.

Read the book here, or download it for free.

According to the New Zealand Avocado industry website, the first tree was grown from seed probably planted in 1926. The first fruit from this tree was marketed in Auckland in 1939 and was “well received”.

“The modern avocado industry consists of 1600 growers who collectively manage 5000+ hectares of mainly the Hass variety of avocados. Hass is harvested for export from late August through to late March. About 80% of export grade fruit goes to the Australian market with the balance going to Japan, USA and Southeast Asian markets.” Read more at the website, including recipes. I have been told by more than one person that Nadia Lim’s chocolate avocado mousse recipe is sensational.

PS: You may have heard that Persea americana (avocados, native to central and South America) are high in fat – relax, it’s the “good fat” that doctors don’t mind.


One thought on “Subaltern’s butter

  1. Great to hear about avocados in NZ…we were brought up on them when I was growing up in Africa, and they are still one of my favourite foods…

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