There are a few people who would argue against calling loquats the first stone fruit of the season. It does have giant pit-like seeds -- anywhere from one to 10 -- enveloped in juicy, peach-colored flesh with a thin, slightly fuzzy and edible skin. Sound familiar? Plant classification is an exacting science, with a maze of family ties that put the loquat in the same group as roses, so similarities be dashed. Stone fruit it is not. Science has spoken.
Ken Love, president of Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers and in town for some press work before the L.A. premiere of the rare fruit documentary The Fruit Hunters (which he's in), has also spoken.
"I LOVE them -- easily in my top 5 of fruits," said Love. "They are virtually unknown in the US but considered one of the top in Japan."
There are only a couple of growers at the Hollywood Farmers Market who sell loquats right now. Rancho Santa Cecilia says that the trees they harvest from -- they aren't sure of the variety -- were there when they took over the land years ago. What fruit they do bring to market is large, sweet and invites a lot of curiosity.
Loquats currently dominate local backyard gardens, in part because the trees, along with providing abundant fruit in our easy climate, have knobby angular limbs covered in long and uniform oval leaves that stay year-round. Good fruit and general beauty aside, they also have a fascinating mythological history.
Love's love for loquats has sent him across the Pacific many times. The fruit, like most citrus, originated in southern China. According to myth, loquats originated at the mouth of a waterfall.
"A carp was said to swim up the waterfall and turned into a dragon," said Love. "Loquats grew around the mouth of the falls. Since the emperor didn't want subjects to get the strength of the carp, only his family was allowed to eat loquat. The loquat went from China to Spain in 1699 with a Captain Roarg."
And its travels, obviously, didn't end there. Nearly every language except English has its own word for the loquat: biwa in Japanese, nísperos in Spain, mísperos in Mexico, for example
Love's current favorite loquats come from Japan; and in fact he imported six Japanese varieties to Hawaii over 20 years ago. "My favorites in Japan are Mizuho, Fusahime and Obusa," he says. "Also Kibou is the new seedless loquat owned by the government of Chiba, Japan, and has not been released."
Loquats are prolific here, but more fruit per stem isn't always the best way to go. Love suggests thinning back the fruit when it's still very small. "Cut the flowers back and thin small fruit down to three to five fruits -- you'll be surprised how much bigger they get."
If the fruit is yellow and hard, it'll be tart, but also full of pectin and perfect for pies, jams and jellies. As the color becomes more apricot-like, both in color and sweetness, the thin skin bruises more easily, leaving dark brown marks across the fruit. This doesn't affect the fruit. Instead avoid cuts, wrinkles or very soft pit marks. The large seeds squeeze out easily and some practiced hands have made liquor out of them. But beware: The seeds release cyanide when ingested, although it's only an issue if you take in large quantities.
Rancho Santa Cecilia predicts they'll have their loquats for another couple of weeks, weather permitting.
There will be a special screening of The Fruit Hunters with Bill Pullman (an avid fruit hunter in his own right and the globe trekking explorer in this thorough and fascinating documentary) on Monday, May 13 at the Laemmle in Santa Monica. If you're even remotely curious about fruit diversity and what we might be missing, it's a must see.
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