Loquats are the Exotic Fruits Everyone in Santa Ana is Tired Of
The Delhi neighborhood in Santa Ana is like a Whole Foods en plein air. Alongside soaring palm trees and weeping pepper trees you'll find a profusion of the most expensive and exotic fruits: pomegranates, figs, grapefruits, persimmons, avocados, cactus pears, and loquats. These are fruits of mystery and romance, and they are fruits that we are sick to death of. (Okay, not you avocados. Nobody ever gets sick of avocados.)
Loquats in Santa Ana
Loquats are the first of the exotics to fruit, usually coming in around April, exploding in sparkling little peach clusters among velvety green leaves. The first week they ripen, the whole neighborhood takes on their too-sweet smell. The kids sit on their curbs gobbling up handfuls and spitting the seeds at the panting sparrows. It's idyllic, the perfect California image.
But the loquats keep coming and keep coming, in every house, on every street, and by the time the second flush comes in May even the fat sparrows are sick of eating them. They pick lazily at the fruit and the kids in the street start throwing the whole fruits at each other. To say we take them for granted is an understatement. We are downright resentful.
How Did Loquats Get to Santa Ana?
Loquat is a Cantonese word - the loquat, like so many of our exotic fruits, originated in China where it has been cultivated for thousands of years. Currently Japan is the world's leading producer of commercial loquats, followed by Israel and Brazil.
Loquats were introduced into California in the 1850s for commercial farming. The famous Orange County commercial horticulturalist C.P. Taft was single-handedly responsible for breeding the modern varieties. Taft is known to history as the man who established the avocado industry in California - but with loquats he was less successful.
The problem was that loquats were TOO successful. The climate in Orange County was so perfect that they spread from farms to residential neighborhoods. As home cultivation increased, the farming industry collapsed. Commercial farmers tried to grow them for export canning, but the large seed size made it unprofitable.
In the Delhi neighborhood of Santa Ana, loquat trees are overwhelming. Most trees are between 10-25 feet high and have been growing for many decades. Loquats can produce fruit for over 50-70 years, and every year produce 100-300 pounds of fruit per tree. Most backyards have at least one - so it's not surprising we get so sick of them.
Although the ripe loquat is so juicy that their delicate skin bursts off, the skins can quickly acquire unattractive scars that make them difficult to sell at high-end grocery stores. Like other heirloom foods, they are also highly perishable and difficult to ship.
The taste is hard to explain. A loquat just tastes loquat-y. But it's very sweet, soft, and mild - the flavor is somewhere near a canned peach, honey, and an over-ripe apricot.
There are a lot of culinary uses for them, and they're very popular in Asian candy. Lately I've been seeing them in $14 hipster jams - so that might be the next recipe to research. After all, we're already sick of them...and still have 250 pounds to go!