I'm deep in dis-pear

FRUIT OF HIS LABOUR: Houshang Hassan is the grandson of the Shah of Iran’s former gardener and an enthusiastic ambassador for the glorious avocado.
FRUIT OF HIS LABOUR: Houshang Hassan is the grandson of the Shah of Iran’s former gardener and an enthusiastic ambassador for the glorious avocado.

Take a look at this man. Remember his face.

This, my friends, is a national hero in the making. Allow me to introduce Houshang Hassan, a boundlessly enthusiastic Iranian who was once an aeronautics engineer, and then decided to devote his energy to growing avocado trees instead.

Why? Because it wasn't rocket science.

Houshang and wife Adel run the Avopro tree nursery on Auckland's North Shore, and are on a mission to get more avocados growing in New Zealand backyards. This is noble work.

The avocado is, after all, the king of foods. Rich in protein, fibre, minerals and vitamins, high in monounsaturated fat, low in cholesterol and sugar, with a distinctively delicate flavour and a deliciously unctuous mouth-feel , these alligator-skinned marvels are fruit, vegetable and butter, all in one.

I stumbled across Houshang's website (avopro.org) by accident last month, and we set up a lively correspondence. Even after he had to fly back to Tehran for a family emergency, he emailed me regularly with avo-related info.

For instance, he informed me that the word avocado comes from the Aztec "ahuacatl", meaning "testicle tree", and that the fruit is highly prized in some cultures for its aphrodisiac properties.

Grandson to the Shah of Iran's former gardener, Houshang told me he loved avocados because they represented the perfect intersection of aesthetics, sustenance and thrift.

"A properly cared-for tree is extremely pleasing to the eye and can produce 100 - 200 nutritious fruit every year," he wrote.

"Think of the beauty of the tree, and the health benefits of the fruit. Think of the off-season prices of a single avocado! Think of the Aztecs . . ."

I needed little convincing. My own love for the avo is almost beyond measure. Indeed, a thin smear of Marmite topped with mashed avocado on warm, buttered Vogels toast would be my last meal if I ever found myself on death row.

Besides the flavour, I find both tree and fruit beautiful to behold. I once wandered through a riverside avocado orchard near the Hokianga harbour where little green tree frogs had climbed the trunks to seek shade under those big glossy leaves. I've seen unfeasibly large tropical avocados that had been grown near the Amazon rainforest, stacked high in the street markets in Colombia, each fruit as big as a child's head.

Of course, not everyone shares my love. Some dismiss avocado flesh as insipid green mush with the texture of baby-food.

I can only surmise that these people have yet to taste a perfectly ripe avocado, which is unsurprising, given that our supermarkets frequently try to sell us over-refrigerated fruit that's either rock hard or half-rotten.

Even those that are almost ready to eat are covered in bruises from inconsiderate shoppers squeezing them to see how ripe they are. How do I know this is the cause? Because whenever I'm in the supermarket, I always squeeze them to see how ripe they are.

But bugger the supermarket. Why not grow them yourself? Houshang is ready and willing to help. He got into this business, he tells me, because there was so much ignorance about this remarkable plant.

In his mind, he pictures an avocado-led utopia - a little South Pacific nation densely forested with productive avocado trees, with both adults and children living longer, happier, healthier lives, their hearts in peak condition due to all that monounsaturated fat.

People think the trees are too difficult to grow, or too big, or that they take decades to produce fruit. They believe they will curl up and die after the faintest whiff of a frost. Not true, says Houshang, who has clients successfully harvesting fruit as far south as Christchurch.

His advice? Cover your trees in winter for the first two years. Bung loads of gravel and sand in the planting hole so they don't get wet feet.

Mulch them well so the surface feeding roots don't dry out. Choose the best varieties for your area and plant them very close together so cross pollination will ensure bountiful fruit.

And prune them low so they're a manageable size. Next thing you know, just three years after planting, you'll be hauling buckets of fruit off each tree.

I was sold. I emailed my delivery address to Houshang in Iran, which he bounced on to his wife in Takapuna, who parcelled and dispatched four young trees he thought might thrive in my neck of the woods: Fuerte, Hass, Reed and Zutano.

He emailed through a booklet on how to grow them. He recommended I slap all four trees in the ground in a tight square just a few metres wide.

I did what I was told. Over several weekends I toiled away on the hillside behind my house, digging out soil, carting compost, filling planting holes with rubble to improve drainage.

I mulched with a thick duvet of pea straw and staked each tree so it wouldn't snap in the wind. I built a little frost-cloth hut around each plant to keep it cosy for the first few years.

And now here I am, waiting for my first crop, with a slice of warm, Marmite-covered Vogels ready to go. I will let you know how I get on.

Sunday Star Times