Monday, April 30, 2012

Living With Loquats

Harvesting loquats from The South Tree, April 2012.
Anyone who's ever had a loquat tree knows that loquats can be both a blessing and a burden.  The trees are beautiful and bear an abundance of fruit with very little attention.

This is both the good news and the bad news.  When loquat trees bear fruit, they bear a lot of it.  And it will fall to the ground, courtesy of gravity.

Unless you have a staff of gardeners to rake your yard daily, you may find that the glorious abundance a large loquat tree produces soon becomes annoying.  And if you're anything like me, you feel guilty that you're not putting the fruit to good use each time you feel the soft flesh of a loquat squish into the soles of your shoes.

This year, I intended to harness that guilt – while harnessing the incredible energy of our two loquat trees.

In the past, my husband and I tried loquat jam and loquat cobbler, but it was hard work to peel a large quantity of loquats so I no longer consider any loquat recipe that requires peeling the loquats.

During this loquat season, I've made both loquat butter and loquat leather with mixed results.

If you don't live in loquat territory, you may never have heard of loquats.  I certainly hadn't until I moved to Southern California – where you can find them everywhere.  So in the midst of picking, seeding and pureeing my favorite fruit of the moment, I thought I needed to do some research on the mysterious origins of the loquat.

According to Purdue University's Center for New Crops & Plant Products, the loquat is indigenous to China and possibly to southern Japan, where it has been cultivated for over 1,000 years.   Loquat trees grow in temperate climates around the globe -- and in some intemperate climates as well.  In the 1700s, the colonial powers apparently discovered the deliciousness of loquats, because the fruit suddenly appeared in the greenhouses of the Royal Botanical Gardens in England and National Gardens of Paris – and then soon appeared in other outposts of the European empires. Exactly how they got to Southern California, it’s never made clear, but obviously the loquats like it here, since they grow in such abundance.

The university says that loquats are part of the rose family, Rosacae, surprisingly enough, and claims that trees can grow up to 30 feet tall.  I can attest that this is true – and perhaps is an understatement.  Our two loquat trees are each at least 30 feet tall, with no sign of stopping.

The loquat fruit grows in clusters and each loquat is supposed to contain one to ten large seeds in the center of the fruit.  (I've counted up to six seeds in the fruit from my loquat trees.)  The University web page does NOT point out one of the problems of the loquat’s large seeds. The fruit-to-seed ratio makes them a real challenge to clean.  It takes a lot of work to remove the large seeds for a relatively small volume of usable loquat flesh.

Purdue’s website (based on Julia F. Mortons’ Fruits of Warm Climates) says there are over 800 varieties of loquats.  I have two in my backyard, each a different variety, which I refer to as The North Tree and The South Tree.  After a bit of researching, I believe that The North Tree is a Japanese variety, known for pear-shaped fruit with pale-yellow skin and whitish flesh.   The web page says the fruit is juicy and "non-distinct" in flavor.  We refer to the flavor, more scientifically, as ranging from “blah” to “meh.”

The South Tree has fruit with darker skin, yellowish flesh, and its flavor is distinctly preferred by both wild parrots and 3-year-old girls.  I haven’t specifically been able to identify the variety, but it is quite possibly a “Placentia,” a Japanese variety introduced to Placentia, California in the late 1800s.  Placentia is a tiny town in Orange County, only 35 miles away, so it wouldn’t surprise me that the this variety would have been popular when our L.A. bungalow was being landscaped in the 1930s.
Loquats from The North Tree (top of frame) and The South Tree (bottom of frame), April 2012.

The trees bear fruit from April until May or June – or at least they do in California where I live.  Purdue University claims that freshly-picked loquats will keep for 10 days at room temperature, but at my house they decay quickly and I've found that it's best to harvest them on the same day I want to use them.

Loquats also have the distinction of being a delicious fruit with a poisonous seed.  The chemical inside the seed – hydrogen cyanide -- can break down into cyanide in the human digestive system, so caution should be used when selecting and seeding the fruit.  In addition, the fruit in large quantities is said to have a sedative effect.  Purdue University's Center for New Crops & Plant Products reports that a 5 year-old girl in Florida fell asleep and was difficult to awake after she ate 4 unripe loquats.  She was dazed immediately after waking, but within two hours had recovered and did not suffer any permanent injury.

After reading this bit of information, I'm no longer quite so excited about making loquat jelly, which needs to be made with slightly unripe fruit.  I’m just not that interested in a breakfast jelly that knocks out my children.  However, I am looking forward to making pickled (fully-ripe) loquats in the coming weeks.

As a food history geek, I can find myself lost for hours pursuing the minutiae of the loquat’s illustrious back-story (“Look, it’s also an expectorant!”)  But eventually I realize that I have to get around to that 8 liter bucket full of yellow fruit that could go bad.  And as fascinating as it is to explore the history of Eriobotrya japonica, it’s nothing compared to spreading home-made loquat butter on a piece of crunchy toast on a spring morning in Southern California.