I bumped into a loquat tree, yesterday. I hadn’t noticed the tear-drop fruit developing over the garden path; their weight lowered the branch and I was struck with several soft bumps.
I’d certainly noticed the scent in early winter; the creamy blossoms not only fill the garden they’re in but whole streets with perfume. The strappy green leaves are tough and drought resistant, and many trees survive in old gardens.
That said, not many know what to do with one of the earliest fruits of spring, including me; other than to pick and munch straight from the tree, a fruit that’s fragrant too, but hard to pin down in flavour. Does it taste like a blend of apricot and cherry, peach, citrus and mango or plum, peach and apricot? Like the lychee, it’s all tastes to all people.
It went out of favour because of its flowering and fruiting season, making it a host to fruit fly over winter. But its plusses – and the fact that it sprouts so readily from seed – see it making a comeback.
It’s one of the few sub-tropical trees that grows with impunity in our region; probably because it originated in China, with extremes of temperature similar to ours.
Chinese legend has it that the fruit of the loquat tree would fall into the rivers they grew alongside. Golden carp would eat the golden fruit, gaining strength to swim upriver and waterfalls where they would turn into dragons.
Commoners were not allowed to eat the fruit – royalty didn’t want them to gain the power they contained. That was reserved for them.
The first loquat tree I encountered was in the garden of my parents’ home at Wyndham. This old tree certainly had its fruit eaten by commoners although Mum, like me, found them a little on the tough side for making jam from. It seemed to take a long time to boil the flesh until it softened; sometimes it never did. Making jelly was an option, but as rhubarb, the other cheap ‘fruit’ came in at about the same time, and was much easier all ways round to cook, the loquat’s fruit fell to the ground and sprouted into baby trees.
Which was just as well because a freak storm blew into Wyndham, changed direction mid-stream, twirled the Loquat tree round in circles, and tore it out by its roots.
Thus Dad learned another loquat fact; the tree is shallow rooted, hence its readily sprouting seeds. It knows it may suffer when floods, high winds and occasionally, heavy frosts bring about its demise. On the other hand, it won’t invade your drainage pipes or sewerage systems, and it can grow into a 30 foot tree with a canopy as wide providing year-round shade.
In days gone by the fruit was used in many recipes. The seeds contain a small quantity of arsenic, so should not be included in the finished product, or left around where children might eat them.
So be prepared for cutting them out of the flesh – like pipping hedge cherries, quite a task.
A recipe for Loquat jam from the Sydney Morning Herald of 1902 recommends washing the loquats, splitting and removing stalks and seeds, weighing them, and allowing one pound of sugar to one pound of fruit. Cover with cold water. Leave until next day, then boil slowly until soft (maybe that day steeping in cold water makes the difference) then boil again until it is a very rich colour.
To make jelly, cut the loquats in half, retaining skin and stones. Cover with water, boil slowly until soft, then strain through muslin (or any loose weave unbleached fabric.) overnight, without squeezing the fruit. Measure the juice, boil it up, add equal measure of sugar, and boil until a little gels when put on a cold saucer.
I plan on trying these again this year, now I’m older, more patient, and appreciative of such a giving tree.
More complicated recipes I find more trouble than they’re worth, along with recipes for medlars, rosehips (other relatives of the loquat) and anything to do with pomegranates.
But for the most part, I’ll be eating loquats fresh, each time I bump into them anew.
When it’s finished fruiting I’ll trim it back a bit.