Kumquats

FRAGRANT: Nagami kumquats being harvested at Beck Grove in Fallbrook. (David Karp / For the Times)

Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1960s, my brother and I knew just what to do with kumquats from the potted tree on the patio: We tossed them at each other. Like most Californians, we never ate them.

Kumquats do present a challenge for the uninitiated. In most citrus, the juicy pulp is consumed and the peel discarded. Kumquats, however, are eaten whole, and their appeal stems from the contrast between their tart flesh and thick, sweet rind.

But maybe folks are finally catching on. Without much fanfare, more and more kumquats are being grown in California, which now leads the nation in production. Granted, it's still a minor crop compared to other citrus, but chefs and home cooks alike are giving kumquats more respect, and specialty growers are planting intriguing, previously rare varieties.

Kumquats are intense, complex flavor bombs. Trained sensory analysts detect a fresh, citrusy odor and pungent taste to begin, followed by green and woody notes, with a persistent oily undertone and a sweet, apricot-like aftertaste. A few years ago, a Korean flavor chemist determined that the component that imparts the fruit's distinctive spicy aroma is an ester, present in minute quantities, called citronellyl acetate.

Northern San Diego County, where many farms focus on specialty crops, is the nation's top production area, with 71 acres of kumquats, mostly in small plantings. The local season starts in January and runs through June, but kumquats are at their best, fully ripe yet still firm, from now through April.

The fruit's biggest booster may be Helene Beck of Fallbrook, a.k.a. "Miss Kumquat," who grows several hundred of the trees with her husband, Robert. She sells kumquats wholesale and online, along with kumquat syrup, purée, conserves and fruit leather, and is working on a book of recipes.

"Even here in Fallbrook, many people still don't know what to do with them," she says, offering a plate of freshly baked kumquat cookies.

The view from her Tuscan-style hilltop villa, flanked by cypress trees, evokes an old-world vineyard and chateau. Below in the kumquat orchard, the lush green trees sparkle with bright orange fruit, which two workers painstakingly clip into canvas sacks.

Chefs prize kumquats' pungency, chewy texture and sheer beauty. Breanne Varela, pastry chef at Lucques and AOC, is planning a dessert of yogurt panna cotta served with candied kumquats, Cocktail grapefruit and blood oranges. Zoe Nathan at Rustic Canyon combines kumquats with crème fraîche for an ice cream that she serves by itself or with cornmeal pound cake.

Origin in Asia

Kumquats are native to China, where they are eaten fresh, made into preserves, used for religious offerings and grown as ornamental plants. They are popularly considered citrus -- and were even first classified as members of the Citrus genus after the Scottish botanist Robert Fortune brought the first kumquat plant to Europe in 1846. But in 1915, the great scientist Walter T. Swingle established a new genus, Fortunella, for kumquats, based on structural differences in their flowers, leaves and fruits, compared with those of other Citrus.

Molecular sequence analyses, which in theory could determine how close kumquats are to Citrus genetically, have differed in their conclusions, depending on the methods used. A British botanist, David J. Mabberley, proposed reuniting kumquats taxonomically with Citrus in 1998, but Swingle's system is still more generally accepted among scientists, at least partly because they don't want the inconvenience and confusion of changing names.

Kumquats arrived in California about 1880, long after other citrus, and for many years, Florida dominated production, primarily in the gift-package trade; in California, kumquats were grown almost exclusively as ornamental plants. The 1950 census listed 180 acres of kumquats in Florida, just one in California. But starting in the late 1960s, increased Asian immigration to California spurred demand and prices for kumquats.

"The market was so hot for [kumquats] in the '80s, we used to send crews to harvest home garden trees," recalls Lloyd Bittner, manager of the Cal Flavor packing house in Escondido, which was at the center of the boom.

Eventually, supply exceeded demand, Bittner says. "People would call up to ask, 'Hey, are you coming to pick my kumquats this year?' But we had all that we could sell."

Today, California has 133 acres of kumquats, and Florida has 46, mostly near Dade City, northeast of Tampa. Shippers estimate that 80% of the crop goes to Asian Americans, and that 90% is the standard oval Nagami variety, with bright orange, spicy-sweet skin and tart pulp.

In the last decade, however, the roundish Meiwa variety, the best for eating fresh, has become more available. Introduced from Japan about 1910, after the Nagami variety, it is larger, with a thicker, sweeter skin, and the juice is less sour; when fully ripe it can have a wonderful tropical banana flavor.

Long popular in home gardens, it had not been planted much commercially because of its slower, less vigorous growth, incompatibility with some common rootstocks and the shorter shelf life of its fruit.

These drawbacks sound daunting, but in De Luz, a gorgeous, pristine area of citrus and avocado groves and chaparral north of Fallbrook, two growers, Juan Garcia and George Cunningham, have thrived planting Meiwas. "I sell 10-pound boxes of Nagami for $22, but Meiwa for $31," Cunningham says. "Meiwas just fly out of here."