Don't expect a cricket ball-sized tropical guava from this rather lovely shrub – you'll get handfuls of cranberry-sized, deep red berries instead. And you won't be disappointed – the flavour lives up to the promise of its scent: kiwi, strawberry and something a little spicier, slightly sherbety, almost like bubblegum. It's entirely unique and very addictive.
Chilean guava (Myrtus ugni) grows as a small evergreen shrub, a metre across and, unpruned, can reach a similar height. As with its cousin Myrtle, the leaves are small, waxy and deep green with occasional seasonal flushes of red-purple.
With sun on your side, you'll have pale pink and white bell-shaped flowers hanging in profusion from late spring. Slowly through the summer the flowers turn to fruit that ripen into dark berries in autumn and into winter.
As its name suggests, Chilean guava is native to Chile and neighbouring countries. In South America it is found wild in mountainous, temperate forest clearings, is cultivated commercially, as well as being grown ornamentally and even as an edible hedge in urban areas. I don't know about you, but it sounds infinitely preferable to privet to me.
Chilean guava is not widely grown in Europe. Queen Victoria tried her best to promote it in the 19th century – she had her favourite fruit sent by train to London from the mild climate of Cornwall where it was grown for her table. I can understand why she thought it was worth the trouble – it really is fabulous eaten either raw or cooked.
Chilean guava is, however, beginning to find new homes away from its natural habitat. In Australia and New Zealand it is grown and sold as Tazziberry and is becoming popular as a speciality fruit.
Chilean guava is almost always sold as a generic variety – although there is a variegated form, "Flambeau", which is equally delicious and slightly hardier than the unvariegated type.
Depending on your location, Chilean guava can be a bit of a gamble. It is hardy down to -10°C or thereabouts and will need a sunny, sheltered spot to induce the plant to fruit but the most trouble it'll give you is in digging a small hole in which to plant it. It really is low-maintenance.
To stack the odds in your favour, plant your Chilean guava in a moist, well drained soil in full sun, sheltered from cold drying winds. It will tolerate a little drought once established, but any water you can give it in dry periods will benefit it. It also grows very happily in pots.
Chilean guava is self-fertile so can be grown individually, or planted in number to form a low hedge. No pruning is needed, although it is as happy to be shaped as it is left untamed.
Late frost may knock new growth back a little, but the plant will usually recover very well. If you live in a colder region, I'd be tempted to keep your plants undercover, at least through the colder months.
Chilean guava can be grown from seed, but as with most slow-growing evergreens it'll be a long time until you get to enjoy their fruit, so I'd suggest starting off with plants. If you know anyone with a plant or you want to expand numbers of your own, they do grow very easily from cuttings or by layering.
As their scent is intoxicating it's worth finding a home for your Chilean guava somewhere that you spend plenty of time – by the backdoor or a seat in the garden, perhaps.
Chilean guavas start to fruit at quite a small size, just a few berries at first, but in profusion as they develop. The berries are a real late season treat – ripening slowly, usually early in winter. As the deepening of colour is slightly ahead of the development of full flavour inside the berries, the trick is in leaving them attached just that little longer than you feel comfortable with. Try a few before you pick the rest to be sure they are ready.
Chilean guava berries are, like mulberries, the fruit equivalent of fresh peas – it's hard to get beyond just popping them in as sweets, and for the first year or two when the harvest is modest there's simply nothing better to eat fresh in the garden in winter.
As the bushes grow and the harvest increases, so do the uses to which you can put your expanding harvest. Chilean guava make a fabulous alternative to cranberries and blueberries, bringing their own perfume and flavour to any recipe that uses them. And do try the Autumn Olive Gin recipe with Chilean guava – it's sweeter but equally wonderful.
The berries are also particularly fine in preserves. Try making a delicious and colourful jam, as well as the jelly that was Queen Victoria's favourite, but my favourite way of eating them is by making murta con membrillo, a very popular Chilean pudding made by simmering together quince and the little berries.
To make your own, begin by pouring about 1.4 litres of water into a pan with 150g caster sugar, 75g clear honey and 3 tbsp lemon juice. Bring to a simmer as you prepare the fruit. Quarter, peel and core about 4 quinces, tipping them into the water as each one is ready to stop them from browning. Simmer for at least an hour until the quince start to feel tender when pierced with a knife (this may take up to 2 hours, depending on the quince). Add a couple of handfuls of Chilean guava and simmer for a further 20 minutes. Try it with Greek yoghurt or spooned over ice cream or a slab of Madeira cake.
Chilean guava muffins
This is an excellent, basic muffin recipe which you can adapt as you like. The muffins are great made with edible honeysuckle, mignonette strawberries or wineberries instead of Chilean guava, and are also good with a small handful of chopped pecans thrown into the mix too.
If you don't have any buttermilk, you can get the same effect by adding a teaspoon of lemon juice or cider vinegar to 100ml whole milk about 15 minutes before you whisk it together with the rest of the ingredients.
Makes 12 muffins
250g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
Good pinch of salt
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
115g unsalted butter, melted and cooled
115g golden caster sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
100ml buttermilk (shake the carton before measuring)
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
130g Chilean guava
Preheat the oven to 190C/Gas 5.
Line a 12-hole muffin tin with paper cases.
Sieve the flour, baking powder, salt and bicarbonate of soda together into a bowl.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the melted butter, sugar, eggs, buttermilk, lemon zest and juice. Lightly fold the flour mixture into the wet ingredients with a spatula, then fold in the Chilean guava; be careful not to overmix.
Divide the mixture between the cases and bake for 16–18 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the muffins comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack.
• This extract is taken from A Taste of the Unexpected by Mark Diacono (Quadrille, £20)