A Taste of Atiu is operated by husband and wife team Teaukura and Jude Isaia who moved to Atiu 13 years ago. Teaukura’s mother is Atiuan and his father Penhryn and Jude is from Australia. Teaukura’s ambition was to live in Atiu and restore some of the family land that had once been highly productive but had been left idle for many years.
They started a small garden at their home in Mapumai first, then gradually cleared an old plantation by hand and planted fruit trees, pineapples, herbs and aromatics like ginger, turmeric, chillis and lemongrass.
“After lots of experimenting and a few failures, our plantation began to produce plenty of produce. Much more than we could eat, so our pigs were well fed,” says Jude.
“One day we went to the local shop and saw canned guavas for sale, shipped all the way from New Zealand. It seemed crazy when we thought about the guavas on our own trees that were not being used.
“But it was the amount of fruit that was being wasted that prompted us to think about ways we could preserve it for later use.
“At first we just made things for ourselves to use so that we could save money and make our meals more interesting.”
Jude says the couple hadn’t intended to start up a business but after a while word spread and the demand for their products grew. A local accommodator began serving them to their guests and they would call at the Isaias’ home to buy some.
But it was a trip to Rarotonga for a Trade Day a few years ago that confirmed that the enterprising pair had a product that people were interested in.
Things grew slowly from there,” Jude says.
“Our biggest break came when the owners of the Super Brown store on Atiu, Taoro and Rose Brown (now Cook Islands Agriculture minister) offered to sell our products in their stores in Rarotonga. They are very supportive and actively promote local Atiuan products.
“Super Brown is our sole outlet in Rarotonga and they take as much as we can produce. Their customers often buy our chutney to take back to New Zealand and Australia.”
A Taste of Atiu now produces seven products including eggplant chutney, pawpaw chutney, starfruit relish and pineapple, passionfruit and pawpaw jams which are available all year round, as well as others that are more seasonal.
“We grow most of the ingredients ourselves but add imported vinegar, sugar and spices,” says Jude. “There are no chemical preservatives or fillers in our products.
“Over time we have developed our own recipes by trial and error with the aim of using as much local produce as possible. Basically we’re taking a fruit or vegetable and turning it into a preserve. The possibilities are endless and there are always new ideas to be tested.”
She says the business’ method of production is still small scale and very hands-on, from the preparation of the fruit right through to bottling, labelling and packing.
“Visiting family and friends are often given an apron, a knife and a crash course in vegetable preparation. We make small batches of about 20 jars each time and could produce up to 100 jars a week when everything is in place…jars, fruit, time etc.”
Jude has a background as a chef, having worked in the industry in Australia for many years. She says that as a child, she spent many hours in her grandmother’s kitchen helping to prepare and preserve fruit from the family’s small orchard.
“It was a regular task in that household where the laundry shelves were lined with bottled plums, apples, peaches and homemade tomato sauce that had been cooked on a wood-fuelled stove while cakes and pies baked in the oven.
“Preserving in those days was a necessity and 50-odd years later, that experience has been invaluable in enabling us to supplement our diet and carve out a niche micro business in the Cook Islands.”
There have been many challenges along the way, Jude says.
“They include simple things like developing a label, finding enough jars to bottle the products, looking for suppliers of new lids, obtaining the spices and imported ingredients in the volume and at a cost that would make it viable to produce the products.
The costs involved in sending ingredients to the Pa Enua, and then freighting the finished product back to Rarotonga are probably the biggest barrier to growing the business, she adds.
“Although we still struggle to make a profit from the venture, we get enormous satisfaction knowing that the seed of an idea has blossomed into a potentially successful business that has been founded in the Pa Enua.
“There have been times when we have questioned whether it was worth the effort, but the feedback we receive drives us on.
“A couple of years ago we experienced an eight-month drought in Atiu which devastated most of our fruit trees and we were unable to water our crops. Our citrus trees have only just recovered.”
The venture has received support from many avenues over the past few years which has helped A Taste of Atiu to progress, says Jude.
Through the Ministry of Agriculture, she attended an FAO food preservation workshop with Dr Richard Beyer in 2006. She says this was the catalyst in sparking the idea to begin developing recipes using tropical fruit and vegetables.
“Being taught how to safely produce products in our environment and conditions was a key to success. The Ministry of Agriculture has always taken an interest in what we are doing and has provided technical assistance to help us care for our trees and encouragement to experiment with varieties that will improve the quality of our product.
“BTIB gave us the opportunity to trial or product at a trade day which confirmed that our idea had potential. They also held business training on our island which has helped us with costing and money management.
“The Chamber of Commerce took an interest in our operation and supported us by directing us to the SRICC-CC programme to access funding to assist us to extend our orchard by providing water catchment and storage and a mulcher, which is helping us to improve our soil and conserve water. “They also provided us with jars and lids so that we could increase production and take advantage of excess fruit that was going to waste.
While the government and other organisations have been helpful, Jude emphasises that the business couldn’t have got to where it is without the help of friends, and indeed the entire Atiu community.
However, she adds. “We have an ongoing dilemma with finding jars to bottle our products. Ideally we would like to be able to accept recycled jars rather than to import new ones.
“However, our island does not use enough to keep us in stock. It seems criminal to bring in more waste from overseas when so many suitable jars are being dumped into landfill. We have broached the subject with some organisations in Rarotonga, but have yet to find a way forward.
“Sometimes you get to a point where you just can’t progress without a helping hand and we believe that if government and other agencies can step in to help older people remain productive and our youth to develop small businesses in areas that they are passionate about, then our communities will thrive and depopulation will decrease.
“There is lots of untapped opportunity in our country, especially the Pa Enua. Often we know what we are good at but just don’t know how to develop.”