Monday, March 26, 2007

Love those loquats -- lots of 'em


Sherry Boas
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel March 25, 2007)

Lovely loquats. My trees are covered with fruit. Throughout the region, this year's loquat harvest is especially bountiful. If you have never tasted a loquat, now would be a good time to bite into the tasty fruit also known as a Japanese apricot or Japanese plum.

Ubiquitous in Central Florida, these evergreen ornamentals must have been quite in vogue during the latter part of the 20th century because homes built during that time often included at least one loquat tree in the landscape.

Favored for their compact size -- they seldom grow taller than 25 feet -- loquats are also appreciated for their shapely stature. The trunk is fairly short with wide spreading branches that form a broad canopy.

A loquat tree adds beauty, shade and edible delights to any yard. It also adds fragrance and color. The large, dark green leathery leaves contrast attractively with the lightly scented white flowers that form into pale orange fruit shortly after February ends.

Like most newcomers to the Sunshine State, I knew nothing about loquats when I settled into my first Florida home in the 1980s. Kumquat? Loquat? What's the difference?

Quite a lot, as it turns out.

Loquats are in the Rosaceae family, the same as apples, pears, peaches and nectarines.

Kumquats are a citrus fruit -- think of them as the small, tart cousins to the more popular sweet orange.

Although different in many ways, loquats and kumquats do share certain similarities other than a name that rhymes. Both are relatively little orange-colored oval fruits whose merits are relatively unknown by most Americans.

I first discovered loquats in a neighbor's yard shortly after moving to Florida. Being a forager by nature, curious about any edibles growing in my area, it didn't take long to sample the fruit on my neighbor's tree. I was hooked after the first bite.

Slightly smaller than a regular apricot, and containing two to four smooth brown seeds, a loquat's white to yellow flesh is soft and semi-sweet.

I like to eat them fresh off the tree, popped one after another into my mouth. The seeds are easily dislodged -- much as one would spit out a cherry pit -- and just about as much fun to flick away with your fingers or mouth. Once the pips are released, you can enjoy the remaining fruit, skin and all.

Because loquat flesh discolors shortly after being picked, you won't find them on most grocery shelves. But commercial growers have found many other ways to market their product.

Loquat fruit can be canned, made into wine or turned into a soothing syrup or cough drop. According to Chinese medicine, loquat syrup soothes the throat and acts as a cough suppressant.

Some people make jam, jellies or pies out of loquats. One year I baked a loquat pie. The pie was a success, but after that one attempt, I gave up creating future culinary concoctions. The result was simply not worth the effort. De-pitting one loquat, not to mention the quantity needed for a single pie, is time-consuming and messy.

Better, I decided, to continue plucking the fruit from the tree and enjoying the mild flavor of these early spring fruits without unnecessary amendments.

The other day while driving alongside a local bike trail, I saw a family park their bikes next to a loquat tree covered with fruit. The father reached up to pull down a branch so the child could break off a handful of fruit to sample.

I was delighted to see people actually stop what they were doing to enjoy a taste of nature.

How rare it is these days for most of us to eat anything that is not prepackaged, canned or frozen. The fresh fruits we do eat are usually so picture-perfect, it's as if they came off a production line instead of an actual tree.

This time of year, with loquats so plentiful, is the perfect time to discover -- or rediscover for those who have already tried them -- how delicious the real thing can be.

Step outside. Pick a loquat. Savor the taste of what nature has to offer.

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