Loquats may be rare, but they're worth looking for

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Fresh from the tree, the loquat is juicy, sweet, and bursting with juice and flavor. But it's so delicate and decays so quickly that it's rarely shipped to commercial markets. Fruit expert David Karp has written about loquats for The New York Times and delivered a talk on this delicious fruit at a meeting of the American Institute of Wine & Food. 

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: On my travels in Italy, I've tasted a delicious fruit called a loquat. What are they and why are they special?

David Karp: The loquat is a delectable but much neglected member of the pome family, which includes apples, pears and quinces. Most look like a small apricot-colored pear, although they're a bit more oval in shape. They range from 1 to 2-and-a-half inches long, and have several glossy brown seeds in the center. The thin skin is slightly downy, and the flesh, which can be deep orange, yellow, or creamy white, varies in texture from the crispness of a firm cantaloupe to the juiciness of a ripe peach. The flavor is a pleasant blend of apricot, plum and cherry with floral overtones, and is quite sweet when ripe. If you like peaches, apricots and plums, you'll love loquats. These half-brothers of kumquats typically mature in April and May.

LRK: Where did loquats originate?

DK: The loquat's homeland is southern China, where the common name is pipa, after the lute whose shape it resembles. Chinese natives tell me the fruit is sold in clusters still on the branch tied with string, are gorgeous and have an alluring perfume. In traditional Chinese lore, the loquat and its blossoms are linked with courtesans - a brothel might be referred to as "the gate of the loquats." Both loquat fruit and leaves are frequently found in Chinese herbal remedies for cough and asthma.

The loquat is also common in Japan, where it is called biwa. The Japanese sometimes place paper bags around the growing fruit to produce unblemished specimens, which may be sold in white boxes like candy. In the 18th century, Europeans brought loquat trees home from Japan for use as ornamentals, calling the hardy evergreens, which grow up to 30 feet tall, Japanese medlars. That's why in Italy the loquat is called nespolo Giaponnese, or just nespolo, which is how they're sometimes sold in markets here. They're very popular in Sicily, southern Spain and in Israel.

LRK: Where do the loquats available in the U.S. come from and where can we buy them?

DK: Aside from a few imported from Chile in November and December, most of our loquats come from California where they're grown in the Central Valley and in the south coastal area between Los Angeles and San Diego. Look for them at farmer's markets in and near those areas. On the East Coast, loquats are also imported from Spain and you can sometimes find them at fancy Italian greengrocers at $4 to $8 per pound.

Fresh from the tree, the loquat is juicy, sweet, and bursting with juice and flavor. But it's so delicate and decays so quickly that it's rarely shipped to commercial markets. Loquats are labor-intensive to grow, pick and pack; they're subject to blights, birds and bats. Loquats may be rare, but they're really worth looking for.

LRK: What should we look for when buying a loquat? How do you eat it?

DK: You're unlikely to encounter a wide selection of loquats, but ideally one might look for a sweet, fruity perfume and slight tenderness to the touch. The lighter-fleshed varieties, such as one called Champagne, are especially juicy and delicate. Loquats turn color before they achieve peak flavor, so a bright skin is no guarantee of sweetness. But definitely avoid greenish ones, which are harshly acidic. However, do not disdain bruised or mottled loquats -- the blotched flesh is quite edible and frequently the sweetest.

One can bite into a loquat like a plum, but I prefer to tear off the stem and unzip the skin, which is edible but flavorless. Next, cut the fruit in half, flick out the seeds, and tear off the calyx (the little whorl at the base), and the interior membrane if it is tough. This sounds more complicated that it is. The filet of a prime loquat, resembling a half apricot, is an exquisite reward.

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