Having a piece of fresh fruit to munch is something that we’ve come to take for granted. Oranges have been cultivated for over four millennia, but it’s only in about the past century and a half that they’ve become so widely available that boxes and boxes (including most of what is grown in Florida) are turned into juice that many consider a staple on the breakfast table.
After oranges were introduced from China to Europe by Italian and Portuguese merchants in the late 15th century, they were considered a luxury item and cultivated in the gardens of the rich. In a case of the old becoming the au courant again, oranges and other fruits are a luxury item in Japan and South Korea. At a time when many of us are more aware than ever about how our food is grown and with what, could carefully cultivated fruits be regaining their value?
In Japan and South Korea, people have been willing to pay as much as $15 for a single piece of fruit. Japan’s oldest family-run fruit shop, the Sembikiya fruit emporium, sells boxes of grapes for $60 and a single muskmelon for $100 or more. Often the fruits are wrapped as carefully as fine crystal, with padding so they don’t bruise.
Comments the Global Post about spending enough for a meal (or two, or three) on one piece of fruit:
It may sound gimmicky, but bite into one, and you’ll see why they’re priced so high. Jumbo apples and grapes are tart and packed with taste, and are so eye-appealing you’d think they’re genetically engineered in a spotless white laboratory. (They weren’t.)
These fruits are painstakingly reared via an “intensive and costly growing process” that does use up quite a lot of resources. Japanese cantaloupe farmers baby their high-end fruits in greenhouses kept at precise temperatures and make sure the plants are grown only to a certain height. Indeed, one farmer “even lays plastic hats on top of his cantaloupes to prevent what sellers call ‘sunburn,’” an uneven browning of the melons that dries them out.
Why Spend So Much On One Piece of Fruit?
The reason for the “expensive fruit fetish” is both historical and cultural. Farming remains important in Japan’s mindset with “part-time farmers mounting their tractors in their spare hours … a much-loved part of the Japanese landscape,” notes the Economist.
Before World War II, even though only 16 percent of the country’s land was then under cultivation, 45 percent of Japanese households made their living through farming. Now, only 420,000 of Japan’s 1.5 million farmers are full-time. But there’s still a huge demand for the very fruits of farmers’ labors. Japan’s mountainous terrain isn’t the best for growing fruit but the country’s fruit production sector is a large one (pdf). Even though demand for fruit is in decline in Japan due to changing tastes, consumers still spend some $10 billion per year on fresh and preserved fruits.
A gift of fruit has traditionally been a way to express gratitude in Japan as well as in South Korea. Japan has two gift-giving seasons, in the summer and winter, when family members, business partners and others offer gifts. In South Korea, people often give pears, melons or good-sized apples on Chuseok, a harvest festival that fell in September this year, and Seollal, the Lunar New Year, which usually falls in February.
Just as the French are attuned to the terroir or place of origin that different wines and cheeses come from, so are South Koreans particular about where their fruit originates, says the Global Post: “Succulent apples and pears from Sangju, in the central part of the country, can fetch a small fortune” while grapes from the southwest and west are prized.
Watermelon Thieves Filch Prize Melons
Where there are luxury goods, there are those seeking to make some extra profits from them. Some vendors sell the equivalent of “knock-off” designer fruits, peddling an apple of lesser quality as one that is premium.
This past summer, Japanese farmers even reported a small surge of watermelon thefts, in part the result of “Abenomics,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s promise to raise government spending in an effort to boost prices. Abenomics led to a rise in the cost of raw materials and has been linked to a rise in thefts of hundreds of suika or watermelons, News on Japan reports:
On May 26, a farmer in Chikusei, Ibaraki noticed the disappearance of 700 small watermelons (worth 350,000 yen) from inside a greenhouse not far from his house. “He never thought someone could haul away such a bulky and heavy items,” says the aforementioned reporter.
It’s not only the Japanese and South Koreans who are paying double digits for a single piece of fruit. Farmers in Tottori Prefecture, where the high-end Daiei Suika brand — grown specifically for the royal family of Dubai — experienced three incidents of theft.
Very few of us can afford to pay the equivalent of a meal or two or more for just one lovely apple. But fruit doesn’t have to cost that much to still be considered a luxury item. Locally and preferably organic produce from a farmers market can be just as special. It might be a bit odd to give someone a box of grapes wrapped up with a ribbon — but how about a gift certificate to a local farmers market for someone on your list this holiday season?
Photo from Thinkstock