LOQUATS

Sori, 29 May 2019

It’s the month of May! Time for loquats!

I suspect that many of my readers will have no idea of what I’m talking about, especially if they hail from the northern latitudes. I certainly didn’t until I first came to Italy a lifetime ago. Loquats were one of a long list of new food items my wife introduced me to. Except that she didn’t call them loquats, she called them by their Italian name, nespole, and it took me at least thirty years and the internet to figure out their English name.

Loquats are a fruit. They look like this when unopened.

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They’re a bit fussy to prepare. You have to first peel off their thin skin, which tends to break and tear easily, complicating removal. Once you’ve done that, you slice them open, only to find three or four large stones inside.

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The stones are quite beautiful really – warm brown, smooth, glistening – but they take up a lot of the internal space, which of course means less flesh to eat. In any case, once you flip the stones out the fruit is ready to eat. Ah, my friends, such taste! Sweet, but with a slightly tart, acidic note, a very juicy but firm flesh. To die for …

When we lived in Italy, I always looked forward to the month of May as loquat season. Then we went away for some twenty years and loquats remained but a dream. Even in retirement, when we spend a good amount of time here, we tend to leave before loquats come on the market – we have been in the habit of migrating up to Vienna by mid-May. As luck would have it, though, this year we’ve stayed longer than usual, so I’ve had the joy of once again eating loquats.

The fruit’s English name gives us a clue as to where the loquat hails from. “Loquat” is the English rendering of the Cantonese name for the fruit, lou4gwat1 (I believe those numbers are indications of the tones – good luck with that; in my five years in China, I never managed to “hear” a single tone). The fruit’s ancestral homeland is indeed southern China – more strictly the middle and lower valley of the Daduhe River. I throw in a satellite map from Google Maps, where the red pin is stuck in the river’s valley.

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Readers will see that Daduhe River is in the far south-west of China, in Yunnan province. It lies north of Xishuangbanna, which sits on the Mekong River (and which we had the pleasure to visit when we lived in China), and to the south of Pu’er, the location of a rather particular Chinese tea (which I must confess to not liking very much). It doesn’t surprise me that the loquat originates from this part of the world. Yunnan is a globally famous “hot spot” of biodiversity, hosting thousands of different species.

This Chinese connection delighted me when I found it out since over the years I have written a number of posts about various plants which have been carried out of China and spread to the rest of the world. To date, I have written about the Ginkgo tree, Kaki fruit, the Magnolia, the Peking Willow, Wisteria, the Pauwlonia tree, and Osmanthus. As always, Chinese poets and artists celebrated the fruit. We have here a painting from the mid to late Ming dynasty.

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While here is one from the late Qing dynasty.

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The fruit’s English name may be Cantonese but it was not through the port of Canton that it was first transferred to Europe. Like a number of other Chinese plants that reached Europe (from just among the ones I’ve written posts about: the ginkgo tree, kaki fruit, and the magnolia), the transfer occurred via Japan. It seems that the Portuguese, the first Europeans to reach Japan, were also the first to bring the loquat back to Europe. By the time they first set eyes on the fruit and its tree, probably very soon after they arrived in Japan in 1543, it had been growing there for 500 years or so. In all likelihood, it was brought to Japan by Buddhist monks, either Chinese monks going to proselytize in Japan or by Japanese monks returning home after a period of study in China.

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The modern varieties of loquats owe a lot to the patient work by Japanese farmers to develop fruits that were bigger, juicier and sweeter than their wild ancestors. I salute all those anonymous Japanese farmers for their efforts! I throw in here a woodblock by Katsushiga Hokusai of Japanese farmers at work on their more traditional crop, rice.

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Of course, like the Chinese, the Japanese celebrated the loquat in their art. Here is a woodblock by Utagawa Hiroshige (whom I’ve had cause to discuss at length in a previous post) with the same subject of bird and loquats as the Ming-era Chinese painting above.

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In any event, some time in the late 16th, early 17th Century, a Portuguese ship like this one carried the loquat back to Europe.

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The Portuguese didn’t call this new fruit “loquat”, nor did they even call it by some Lusitanian derivation of its Japanese name “biwa”. Instead, like a good number of other countries in Europe, they thought they had to do with a Japanese cousin of an already well-known fruit in Europe, the medlar, whose Portuguese name is nêspera (closely related to its Spanish name, níspero, and more distantly related to its Italian name, nespola – for those interested in linguistics, in all three languages the word derives from the Latin name for the medlar, mespilus, although at some point the “m” drifted to an “n” and the “l” further drifted into an “r” in the Iberian peninsula). The medlar was once quite a well-known fruit in Europe although it has since fallen into obscurity. I certainly had no idea what it looked like when I started this post, and I suspect this to be the case for many of my readers, so I throw in here a photo of this antique fruit.

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Comparing this photo to my first photo of the loquat, I think readers will understand why this confusion arose. By the early 1800s, botanists had understood that it was actually a different plant but by then the damage was done and the Chinese upstart had linguistically dethroned the venerable medlar in about half the European languages.

Loquats have an interesting life-cycle. Like the strawberry tree, which I wrote an earlier post about, the flowers appear in the late autumn or early winter. It seems that the flowers have a sweet, heady aroma that can be smelled at quite a distance; personally, I have never experienced this even though the loquat tree grows in Liguria (from where I am writing this post). The sweet-smelling flowers were also a reason why the tree was a favourite among Chinese and Japanese poets.

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But from a botanical point of view, what is more interesting is that to obtain fruits from these flowers you have to grow the trees in a region where pollinating insects are around at that late time of the year. That is why I never saw the fruit in either the UK or France when I was growing up and had to wait till I came to Italy, where the tree can fruit in the south and along the Ligurian coast, for me to discover it. An advantage of this life-cycle is that the fruit ripens at any time from spring to early summer. It is the first fresh fruit to be available naturally in Italy (i.e., not ripened artificially in some greenhouse somewhere, nor flown in from some remote part of the world), and so can have the monopoly of the fresh-fruit market before the cherries and other fruits appear. Which is why for me the month of May is loquat time.

And now it’s time for me to gorge myself on some more loquats!