Loquats have always played a big role in my life. In our garden back in Lebanon are three large loquat trees which we have inherited from our grandfather. They grow next to the remnants of the concrete water tank my father knocked down in fear that we may fall in and drown. The trees were really something special. Their leaves beautifully long and dark green, and the light-proof density of their growth invited us to play in the shade. Even as a kid, laziness was a defining quality of mine, and I would spend hours lying under the trees with my friends, picking the tasty orange fruit, squeezing the seeds at each other and eating the sweet flesh. Still to this day, I think those trees have produced the best tasting loquats I have ever had.
When you grow up with something you love, you feel it somewhat defines your childhood, personality and contributes to your sense of belonging. And so, it did come as a bit of a surprise to me to find out a few years ago that loquats, which I had thought were typically Lebanese, have actually originated from southeastern China. They are so well established in Lebanon that it is almost hard to believe they could have come from anywhere else. In retrospect, simply examining the leaves should have given me some clues, as they are so different in shape to anything I know coming from the Mediterranean.
Despite discovering their true origins, I still have a soft spot for loquats. So imagine how happy I was when I moved to Newtown, next to several neighbouring loquat trees, full of fruit that no one wanted to eat. For some reason, despite the widespread availability of the tree, loquats are still somewhat obscure and unknown to most Australians (at least those I know). So I would take my embarrassed English wife with me on fruit picking adventures, and come back with bags full of fruit. The Newtowners passing by would look at us strangely, and most would hesitate to try the fruit when offered to them, though they seemed to like the idea of someone doing some serious urban foraging.
Back in 2001 when I met my wife, a loquat tree self germinated, took root and started growing at her parents’ home in Picton. Lainy considers it a sign from the cosmos that we now share a family tree, so to speak. The Picton loquat has been growing wonderfully for 8 years, and this spring it has grown to be around two and a half meters high and is profusely studded with fruit. So yesterday, as I came back home from the World Chef Showcase, Lainy had just returned from her weekend away with a small bowl of the season’s first loquats. We picked the ripe ones for eating fresh, and decided to make loquat jelly out of the more citrusy ones. I had never made loquat jelly, but as I share many a common interest with Maggie Beer, I reached for her excellent book, Maggie’s Harvest, where she has a recipe for this stunningly orange loquat jelly. It is worth mentioning that loquats are naturally high in pectin (the substance that helps jam set), so no added pectin is needed. Also, increasing the amount of sugar (as I did) should produce a less runny jelly. And finally, a word on jam, jelly and marmalade. Jam is the preserve made using the flesh of non-citrus fruits while marmalade describes the preserve made with citrus fruit. Jelly is the preserve made with only the juice of the fruit, citrus or not. So by jelly, I don’t mean Aeroplane Jelly. Have a look around your area and see if there are any loquat trees. You will be surprised by how common they are. Be encouraged to pick the fruit, it’s now in season.
Loquat Jelly Recipe, adapted from Maggie’s Harvest by Maggie Beer
Put a small plate in the freezer. Halve the loquats, put them in a sauce pan, and add enough water to simply cover them. Bring them to a boil and simmer them until a third of the water has evaporated and the flesh is soft and pulpy. Strain, water and all through a fine sieve and press on the flesh to extract as much juice as possible. Make sure you don’t discard the water. Measure your liquid, and for every cup add 3/4 cup of sugar. I used a 1 to 1 ratio which gave me a nice, stiff jelly, which was a bit on the sweet side. I’ll add a bit less sugar next time. Check for acidity, and add some lemon juice if you like. Bring the mixture back to a boil and heat until it reaches 105C, which is jam setting temperature. You can test if the jelly has set by spooning some on the cold plate. It will cool quickly, and will wrinkle when you push your finger across if it has set. Store in sterilised jars and enjoy when it cools down.