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Loco for Loquats

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ask Elizabeth Woodfield about loquats and, with a dreamy smile, she’ll recall climbing loquat trees on her family’s Santa Barbara farm and gorging on the sweet-tart fruit, like little orange pears.

On the other hand, my Aunt Elly had loquats in her Studio City backyard for 34 years and never knew they were edible.

So far have loquats fallen nowadays that they’re mostly ignored or, worse, confused with kumquats. A century ago, however, Southern California led the world in developing loquats. A spiritualist commune notorious for unusual sex practices promoted their consumption, and loquat boosters predicted that the fruit would overtake oranges in popularity.

A member of the pome fruit family--a cousin to apples, pears and quinces--the loquat looks more like an offbeat apricot: bright orange to yellow-gold, round, oval or pear-shaped, from one to three inches long. The thin skin is slightly downy, tougher than a peach’s and sometimes freckled with red.

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The flesh, which can be deep orange, yellow or creamy white, is juicy and tender yet firm, and there are several glossy brown seeds at the center. The flavor most resembles cherry with floral overtones, though some tasters detect apple, plum and grape.

The loquat’s glory is its precocious season, starting in March or April, weeks before the first cherries and peaches. This year, cold weather in early spring delayed the harvest, which is peaking now and will extend into June.

Botanists believe that loquats originated in the Dadu River Valley of western Sichuan, where wild forms abound. The Chinese have cultivated the fruit for more than 2,000 years, calling it lu-kwyit, or “reed orange,” in Cantonese (the name of the unrelated kumquat means “golden orange”). In Mandarin, the loquat’s name, pipa, sounds like that of the rather loquat-shaped Chinese lute.

The Japanese, who call it biwa, adopted the fruit more than 1,000 years ago and have perfected its cultivation. In the late 18th century, Europeans brought loquat plants home from Japan for use as ornamentals, calling these evergreen trees with dark glossy leaves Japanese medlars.

Whatever their name, loquats spread to many subtropical regions in the 19th century: India, Australia, South and Central America, much of the Mediterranean basin and the southern United States. Agricultural historians think traders brought the pits to California directly from Japan after the opening of trade with that country in 1851, though the loquat trees grown from seed usually bore inferior fruit--small and seedy with scanty flesh.

In the early years, a few Los Angeles-area growers sent mini-loquats to San Francisco markets, mostly for Asian immigrants. Only in the 1880s and 1890s, when nurseries introduced grafted varieties (both imported from Japan and selected by growers from their larger-fruited seedlings), did the general public come to appreciate loquats.

Cultivation centered on the coastal strip from Santa Barbara to San Diego, particularly in Orange County, where the mild climate provides just enough heat in spring to ripen loquats for a lucrative early market. (Inland and further north, autumn frosts often destroy the young fruits and late maturity exposes the crop to ruinous sunburn.)

In the 1880s, an eccentric vegetarian colony called the Societas Fraterna pioneered growing loquats on a 24-acre property in what is now Placentia, along with many other fruits, nuts and vegetables--which they consumed raw, believing that cooking destroyed the spiritual essence of food. The cult lived in a huge mansion with round, oval and S-shaped rooms, because members thought the spirits that guided them didn’t like corners.

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The group decided which members should have sex together, arousing the neighbors’ suspicions of even more outlandish practices. That didn’t stop people from reaching through the fence to snatch giant loquats or from buying produce at the mansion, making it perhaps California’s first health food store.

One of the leaders, Walter Lockwood, styled himself Thales after the Greek philosopher and gave this name to the commune’s large, orange-fleshed loquat variety, which is still popular today, though now it is usually known as Gold Nugget.

The real father of the California loquat industry, however, was Charles P. Taft, who settled near the town of Orange in 1883. Selecting seedlings for size, flavor, color and shipping quality, he introduced his first variety, the white-fleshed Advance, in 1897.

In a series of articles in local papers, he boasted that loquats kept like lemons and brought high prices. Impressed, the Los Angeles Times horticultural editor wrote in April 1899 that the Advance was “entirely superior to anything yet seen” and that “every yard should have one.”

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Taft continued to breed loquats on his 15-acre planting and released half a dozen varieties over the next decade, including Champagne (still the standard of flavor) and Early Red, which matures in late January and February.

More growers planted orchards, totaling at least 50 acres. They formed a marketing cooperative and sent their fruit in wooden lug boxes to the Los Angeles produce market. “Predicts Loquats Will Rival Oranges,” screamed the banner headline in the Santa Ana Register in 1924.

But that was Taft’s last hurrah. The fad had started to fade in the ‘20s, and Taft sold his orchard in 1926. He lost money in bad land deals and was reduced to selling his furniture to buy groceries by the time of his death in 1934.

Wesley Marquart, 81, remembers Taft, whose property adjoined the house where he grew up and still lives, on Taft Avenue. “He used to drive an electric car, the only one I ever saw. It had a steering stick instead of a wheel and the seats faced each other sideways,” he remembers.

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All that is left of Taft’s holding is a single avocado tree in Marquart’s yard--perhaps the last surviving tree of the Taft variety, a gift from the great horticulturist to Marquart’s father. In the 1960s, a shopping center and housing development devoured Taft’s grove.

Despite its virtues of flavor and precocity, the loquat has serious commercial disadvantages. Americans disdain mottled fruit, and the delicate fruit blemishes if the wind brushes it against a branch or strong sun scorches it. At harvest, workers must carefully clip the stem of the fruit then treat it as delicately as an egg during packing and shipment.

Because loquats are such a minor crop, it’s all but impossible to get pesticides developed and registered for them. Finally, people and loquats like the same climate, so as the cost of labor, land and water increased over the years, most loquat growers found it more profitable to sell out.

A few struggled on. Records from the 1940s and ‘50s tell of a 20-acre orchard in Vista, five acres in Orange and scattered groves in the Whittier hills; but in recent decades, two attempts to grow loquats in the Central Valley ended in failure, and the fruit neared commercial extinction.

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Today, many farmers keep a few trees for their families or use them as a windbreak or to lure birds away from other crops but don’t bother to harvest the fruit. The last redoubt of small-scale cultivation is northern San Diego County: At the Vista Farmers Market, 14 growers list loquats on their certificates, all with a dozen or fewer trees.

Dwight Landis is the nation’s only commercial loquat grower, and he’s in Malibu, of all places. Actually, it’s Malibu Post Office, in an unincorporated part of Ventura County. Jack Nicholson owns a house just over the hill, but it’s a wild, sparse landscape of beige and sage mountains rising sharply from the Pacific, which glitters a mile away and 1,800 feet below. A mechanical engineer whose company makes instruments to monitor air pollution, Landis started planting loquats in 1982 and harvested his first fruit in 1987. He now has five acres of them, along with 17 acres of avocados.

Why loquats? Two weeks ago, as he instructed workers picking the season’s first crop on the steep, terraced slopes, he mused, “Sometimes I wonder myself. I guess it’s the challenge; I like doing something no one else has done.”

Soft-spoken, with the big hands of a farmer, Landis, 51, radiated boyish enthusiasm as he spoke: “Timing the harvest is tricky. As they ripen, loquats turn a golden color with a light layer of fuzz. You have to pick them when the skin loses its fuzz and becomes glossy, but before it wrinkles, a change that can happen in a day or two.”

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The nursery that sold him his trees claimed they were Champagne, Taft’s favorite, a light-fleshed variety, but Landis’ loquats have orange pulp. Unfortunately, such confusion prevails at many nurseries concerning this neglected fruit.

“I’m not sure what I have,” admitted Landis. “I keep it because it produces and stores well.”

Microclimate makes a huge difference--on one side of a ravine, the loquats are twice as large and ripen a month later than on the other side.

Marketing is Landis’ toughest problem. He sells some fruit through a wholesaler in Monterey Park and some through farmers markets, but he always has a surplus.

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“I know now why I’m the only commercial producer,” he said. “If I had to rely on loquats for a living, I’d be broke.”

Many people laugh at the idea of paying for loquats, when they’re free for the taking all over the city. Ubiquitous as backyard ornamentals, loquat trees thrive on neglect, don’t grow too high and reproduce easily from seed.

Each May, on a Sunday afternoon, Betty Lou Young invites her neighbors to a loquat party at her home in Rustic Canyon. “Many people love them but don’t have a tree of their own,” she said, looking up at the tree shading her doorway. “When they’re ripe, there are too many, and they make a mess. But when there are none, we have a ‘no-quat’ party!”

At Beth McBeth’s home in Costa Mesa, strangers often stop by and ask to pick her loquats. But what she really notices are the six wild parrots that squabble over the fruit. “When the loquats get ripe, we have some noisy bird battles,” she says.

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To protect against avian and human pilferers, David and Tina Silber, who own a nursery in Granada Hills specializing in exotic fruit, tie white paper bags around the clusters of growing loquats, clipping the corners for ventilation.

“It’s a tedious job, but leads to larger, more uniform, unblemished fruit,” says David, who often waxes loquacious--he’s the California Rare Fruit Growers loquat expert. He and his wife have visited commercial loquat orchards in Spain and Israel, where they learned horticultural practices that yield superior fruit.

“Properly grown loquats should be at least two inches long,” he says, removing a bag to fondle a cluster of luscious, meaty Big Jim loquats, a popular orange-fleshed variety he recommends.

Big Jim himself, however--that’s Jim Neitzel, a semi-retired schoolteacher who selected the variety 20 years ago at his hilltop home in San Diego--prefers other loquats to his namesake. On his 2 3/4-acre property, a jungle of luxuriant loquats, he experiments with seedlings, saving the trees that bear good fruit. Like Taft, he’s keenest for white-fleshed loquats.

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“They have the most character, especially if you leave them on the tree until dead ripe,” he says, biting into a large fruit with optimal texture--crunchy, yet juicy and melting--and a perfect balance of sweetness, acidity and aromatics. “Their acidity provides pizazz, and white loquats get even tastier if they hang on the tree, whereas orange ones become bland.”

Several of Neitzel’s favorites, to which he has given such names as White Gold, Sabroso and Cantaloupe to reflect their characters, equal or excel in flavor any of the varieties commercially available in California. Scientists in Europe and Asia, where loquat growing is big business, have come up with dozens of advanced selections, with fruits weighing up to half a pound, but these are little known here.

There’s only one small public collection of loquats in America, at the University of Florida at Homestead. However, John Moore, a retired teacher, keeps 22 varieties from around the world as an experimental orchard in Baja California, 178 miles south of the border. Last Saturday, as a Pacific breeze cooled the grove, located at a home for needy children, he sampled several of these fruits, including Magdal, an Algerian loquat that tasted improbably of Concord grape, and Mrs. Cooksey, a three-inch-long yellow-fleshed variety from New Zealand.

Another enthusiast, Patrick Sahfer of Philo, in Mendocino County, keeps California’s largest collection, 30 varieties. At this northern end of the loquat’s range, the fruits develop extraordinarily intense flavor, says Schafer.

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China grows 64,000 acres of loquats, up 15-fold in 50 years, and produces two-thirds of the world’s 150,000-ton harvest. In China, it’s said that the local loquats surpass all others in alluring perfume. This may explain why the loquat and its blossoms are linked with courtesans in Chinese folklore--a brothel might be referred to as “the gate of the loquats,” and gossips might wink and whisper “Chang’s gone to smell the loquats.” On a more practical note, both loquat fruit and leaves figure importantly in Chinese herbal remedies for cough and bronchitis.

Spain, where plantings in Valencia and Callosa have expanded dramatically in recent decades, is a distant second in loquat production. Japan ranks third, though in that land of expensive fruit, growers take pains to market immaculate loquats, bagging their trees, pampering them in plastic greenhouses and even running monorails up hills to convey the harvest unbruised.

Alexander Nemeth, a loquat grower in Encinitas, once saw a Japanese suitor present a box of perfect loquats to his sweetheart, as if they were candy. “She was all over him to receive it,” he says.

When loquats have not received such cosseting, however, the scruffy, mottled ones usually taste sweetest. Spotless specimens sometimes disappoint, since peak flavor develops on the tree a week or more after the fruit turns yellow or orange. Ideally, one might look for a sweet, fruity perfume and slight tenderness to the touch.

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The subtle flavor of loquats is best enjoyed at room temperature. (They keep in a cool spot for a week, longer in the refrigerator.) You can bite into a loquat like a plum, but most people tear off the stem and unzip the skin, which is edible but a bit tough. Next, cut or rip the fruit in half, flick out the seeds and tear off the interior membrane and the calyx (the little whorl at the base).

This sounds more complicated than it is, and the filet of a prime loquat is an exquisite reward.

Loquat Granita

Active Work Time: 40 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 3 hours

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This versatile, quick dessert from Yard is perfect for a warm spring afternoon.

2 pounds loquats, about 6 cups, peeled and pitted

3 1/2 cups water

1/2 cup sugar

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1 star anise

3 ounces sparkling wine or grape juice

3 tablespoons lemon juice

* Bring loquats, 1 1/2 cups water, sugar and star anise to boil over medium heat and boil 3 minutes.

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* Pulse in blender or food processor until smooth. With motor running, slowly pour in remaining 2 cups water and wine. Press through strainer into bowl. Place bowl in larger bowl of ice water to cool. Add lemon juice and more sugar to taste if needed.

* Pour into 5 cold ice cube trays and freeze until firm, at least 2 hours.

* Just before serving, place cubes in single layer in bottom of food processor bowl fitted with steel blade. Pulse 10 to 12 times. Scoop crystals into bowls. Repeat with remaining cubes.

* Variation: For flavored ices, pour base into molds and freeze.

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* Variation: For loquat gelatin, sprinkle 4 teaspoons gelatin over 1/4 cup cold water. Let sit until gelatin absorbs all water, about 1 minute. Set aside. When loquats, water, sugar and star anise have boiled for 3 minutes, remove from heat and stir in gelatin until dissolved. Continue with recipe, but instead of freezing in ice cube trays, pour into 8 (4-ounce) glasses and chill until set.

8 servings. Each serving: 109 calories; 2 mg sodium; 0 mg cholesterol; 0 grams fat; 28 grams carbohydrates; 1 grams protein; 0.57 grams fiber.


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