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FRENCH FLAVOUR FOR SCENIC RIM CITRUS

When they planted 4000 fingerlime trees on their Rathdowney property Ian and Margie Douglas knew little about the native Australian citrus fruit.

Now they are one of Australia’s largest fingerlime producers and have successfully introduced this unique product to high-end restaurants in Australia, Asia and most recently Europe.

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The couple recently delivered a bulk order of fingerlimes to a French wholesaler for supply into Michelin-starred restaurants.

It’s the culmination of many years of hard work, establishing strong high-end markets for this beautiful native fruit.

In life before farming Ian was an industrial relations QC, who acted on behalf of Australian employers.

In his career hey day he went head to head with Bob Hawke and other high-profile opponents.
But Ian says those battles were nothing compared to the challenges he and Margie have faced establishing a fingerlime farm.

“It’s been more difficult than we originally thought it would be,” he admits.

“Virtually no research had been done. There were no trials on the best varieties to grow in certain areas and there had been no significant trials on shelf life. It has been a very fulltime exercise to get to the point we are now where I can see a real future for the industry.”

The couple farms an 11ha property near Rathdowney, which they bought 30 years ago. In 2005 Margie read a magazine article about fingerlimes and it started her thinking. Shortly after the couple watched a segment about the beautiful citrus beads on Landline and they decided to give it a go.

The couple moved to the farm permanently in February 2013 and since then have poured their energy into raising the profile of fingerlimes and opening up new markets for this fledgling industry.

“I retired from my law practice in 2008 and when the trees started to grow older and produce fruit we decided that to make it work we needed to be here full time,” says Ian.

The farm is located 822m above sea level and is suited to growing the native citrus, which dates back thousands of years.

While perfecting the growing and harvesting of the fruit has been challenging, the biggest test has been securing reliable, regular and profitable markets.

The couple has targeted high-end restaurants and caterers and markets their fruit as ‘rainforest caviar’, a description inspired by the perfectly formed beads of zingy fruit that emerge from under the skin.

About 50 per cent of the fruit is sold fresh and half of that is sold overseas. The rest is sold into high-end restaurants, bars and gourmet produce stores domestically.

Much of the fruit is exported frozen.

“We were as guilty as anybody in thinking these things would sell like hotcakes,” says Ian.

“The reality dawned upon us all when we started picking the fruit. We knew we had to develop markets and Margie and I have been doing that for the past two years.

“We have tried to create a climate where chefs can ring us up and order and we’ll get the fruit to them within 48 hours. We also supply places like the Standard Market Co. at Southport, James St and the Gasworks. We’re also in the David Jones Food Hall.

“It’s been interesting and exciting being at the forefront of a brand new industry. It’s been hard work but we’ve enjoyed it.”

The couple’s focus is now firmly on France. They are working with a wholesaler who supplies Michelin-starred restaurants. The Australian product was also given a worthy introduction to the world’s chefs by Shannon Kellam who used fingerlimes in the dishes he created for the Bocuse d’Or, billed as the world championships for chefs.

Shannon represented Australia at the competition, held in Lyon France, and placed 12th out of 24 teams.

Fingerlimes come in a variety of colours and compliment dishes from seafood to dessert and even cocktails.

Ian and Margie are harvesting their fruit now through until May.