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High on a steep, terraced mountainside in Malibu, with a spectacular view of the Pacific, perches the largest and probably the only commercial planting of loquats in the United States. A pome fruit related to apples and pears, the loquat is one of the great pleasures of spring in Southern California. It has firm but juicy flesh with the texture of cantaloupe and a sweet-tart flavor evoking cherry. The irony is that it is so well-adapted and common as a backyard tree that there's little local demand for the fruit.
"They grow almost like weeds here, so people won't spend money on them," says Dwight Landis, 64, who ships his fruit around the country but found it didn't pay to sell through farmers markets. As a result, despite its uniqueness and proximity, his farm has stayed below the radar of local foodies.
Landis has managed to make loquats pay but has faced plenty of challenges in production, including voracious deer, sunburned fruit and fire blight. Although loquat trees are fairly hardy, they are labor-intensive to prune and harvest. Marketing is no cinch, either: Partly because the fruits require time to peel and deseed, there's limited demand for them, mostly from customers of Asian and Mideastern origin. "Most Americans don't want to mess with loquats," says Landis.
The trick in choosing loquats is to find fruit of a good variety, picked fully ripe and fresh off the tree so that it has a good balance of sweetness and acidity, and an intense, pleasant flavor. Over-irrigation or recent rains can dilute the flavor. There's no sure bet, however, since fruit of equal ripeness from the same tree can vary markedly in quality. Backyard fruits from seedling trees can be very tasty but are sometimes small and seedy, and hardly worth the trouble to eat. Don't disdain fruits with minor scuffs and bruises, which are often the tastiest.