Posted in John's Current Blog on March 31, 2014

March 31, 2014 Called “Japanese Plums” in Charleston, South Carolina, where I first encountered them, loquats (Eriobotrya japonica) are native to and widely cultivated here in in Sichuan, where wild specimens are still found on the hillsides and along the Yangtze, according to Shiu-Ying Hu’s massive Food Plants of China: “They were introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks in the Tang Dynasty. Every part of the plant is used in traditional Chinese medicine.” In markets here in Sichuan, they are called “pi-ba” (“pull-off skin”) and the root of the tree is slowly cooked with chicken in a clay pot with yellow rice wine, bolstered with pigs’ feet. Most Sichuanese eat the fruit out of hand, but I can’t resist tinkering with the tart recipe that my chef friend Joann Yaeger, easily the best cook I’ve ever known, developed in Charleston 30 years ago. We were determined to get more Charlestonians using the fruits from the ornamentals planted in their dooryards in Victorian times, even though they weren’t the best varieties for eating.   I never heard them called anything but “Japanese plums” there, and, before all the gentrification, when I first opened my store, small children would come around during their early season (they were the first fruits of the year, during the Spoleto Festival in late May and early June) selling them.

When I lived in Liguria,  loquats (nespoli) were everywhere, as they are on the French Riviera as well (where they’re called nèfles, or nesples, or mespila), but they’re much fleshier, much more like apricots, recipes for which are generally interchangeable. In England, they’re called medlars, from the German, but medlar also refers to another fruit, native to Persia, also popular in Victorian times. Some sources say that the Italian nespole refers to it, but, when I lived there, what we called nespoli were loquats. As is often the case, the common names are a mess to decifer: According to the OED, medlar originally referred to another tree, Mespilus germanica, also grown for its fruit, which, according to Hortus Third, is “edible after frost….when fully ripe, or made into preserves.” Otherwise, it is highly astringent, like an unripe persimmon. But medlar has come to mean the fruits of various other trees, “as Neapolitan or Oriental Medlar, the AZAROLE, Crataegus azarolus. Japanese Medlar, the LOQUAT.” This last, in other words, Charleston’s loquats. The best fruits are grown on grafted trees; there are both white-fleshed and yellow- or orange-fleshed varieties.

There are dozens of varieties of loquats grown in subtropical and tropical regions throughout the world. They bruise easily, so they are rarely shipped far. Popular in Portugal as well as the aforementioned Italy and France, they are admired throughout the Mediterranean, in Central and South America, and in India and Asia, their sweet-and-sour flavor brightening chicken and shrimp dishes as well as sweets. In Turkey, the not-quite-ripe ones of early spring are seeded, and the halves are skewered on kebabs with ground meat, as Tuba Şatana explains on her Istanbul blog.

I loved the loquat tart recipe that Joann developed for me for my first book; it seemed a shame not to offer a recipe for this common Charleston dooryard fruit. But the Charleston ornamentals were a real pain to prepare for cooking, with oversized pits and not much flesh — never mind how delicious.  A better way to preserve those fruits might be to make a “brandy” from it, the way they do in Bermuda. It’s similar to the Cherry Bounce described both in my lowcountry book and here on the blog. On Bermuda, it’s made with rock candy and gin, or more elaborately with brandy instead of gin and the addition of such spices as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and allspice.

Here in Sichuan, the fruits have begun to arrive from points south (the trees in Chengdu have fruit that is nowhere near ready). With these fleshy, juicy fruits, I have tweaked the recipe a little, using  my own version of pasta frolla — more like Mother’s sugar cookie dough (see December 2007) than the classic Italian version (see January 22, 2009), but it’s delicious. I’ve added a bit of baking powder to lighten it since getting soft southern flour such as White Lily® here is problematic. The recipe follows. I halved the recipe and used a 7 inch (17cm) tart pan instead of the 10″ one called for in the recipe. With the leftover dough and loquats, I made a freeform tart. (See photos)

Crostata di Nespole (Japanese Plum Tart)

Charlestonians will probably always call loquats “Japanese plums,” but you can make this loquat tart with apricots, cherries, preserves, or jam. If you have neither fresh apricots nor loquats, used dried apricots soaked in water overnight (see below).
14 tablespoons (1-3/4 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled and diced, plus butter for greasing the pan
½ cup sugar
2 1/2 cups soft southern flour or pastry flour mixed with all-purpose, plus flour for dusting
pinch salt
¼ teaspoon baking powder
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract
2 tablespoons milk
1/4 cup apricot jam ( more if you want to glaze the tart)
2 cups seeded loquats, apricots, or rehydrated dried apricots*
½ cup chopped pecans

Grease a 10″ tart pan with butter. Set aside two teaspoons of the sugar, then combine the remaining sugar, the flour, the salt, and the baking powder in the work bowl of a food processor and pulse to blend. Add the diced butter and pulse in bursts until the butter is evenly minced into the mixture. Mix the egg, extract, and milk together well, then, with the processor running, pour it into the bowl and allow the processor to mix the dough until it forms a ball on top of the blades.

Turn the dough onto a floured surface and roll out about 1/2″ thick. Score off a section of the dough big enough to fill the pan, about 2/3 of the dough. Roll that section up onto the rolling pin, then unroll it into the tart pan. Lightly press into place, pressing on the sides so that the edges are taller than the sides of the tart pan. Wrap the remaining dough in wax paper or aluminum foil and refrigerate it. Cover the tart shell and refrigerate for an hour, or up to a day.

Preheat the oven to 350º. Remove the tart shell and extra dough from the refrigerator and allow it to rest at room temperature for a half hour. Line the tart shell with wax paper, aluminum foil, or parchment paper, and fill it with weights such as dried beans, rice, or pie weights. Bake for 7 to 10 minutes, remove the weights, and bake for another 5 minutes.

Spread the jam evenly in the tart shell, then add the fruit, interspersing it with little pinches of the remaining dough. Sprinkle with the nuts, then sprinkle the entire tart with the reserved sugar.
If you have leftover dough, roll them out into cookies and bake them on a pan alongside the tart. Place the tart on a baking pan and bake in the preheated oven for about 45 minutes, or until the dough is evenly browned. Serve warm or at room temperature. If you want to glaze the tart, melt some jam with a little water and paint the tart with it while still warm.
Yield: 8-10 servings.

* For 2 cups of rehydrated apricots, fill a 2-cup measuring cup loosely with dried apricots. Fill with water to barely above the 2-cup mark. Pour the water into a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the apricots, stir well, remove from the heat, and cover. Let stand overnight. If the fibrous lining of the pit cavity remains behind after halving the fruits and seeding them, I use a grapefruit spoon to delicately remove it without removing the flesh. In spite of its name in Mandarin, I do not peel the fruits (see photo, below).

I served the tart yesterday to friends after a Mexican meal. One of them who is Sichuanese lived in the States for 20 years and was so surprised to find piba on an American’s table.

Walking home from school today, a fruit vendor whose stand I frequent motioned for me to come over and see what he had today: the first of the cherries! And to think that I thought that I might actually get some studying done today! Ha!

If you live in Florida or California, you may be able to find fresh loquats now. Their season is brief, lasting about 6 weeks, through May in Florida and throuthrough June in California. They are delicious poached in sugar syrup seasoned with a llittle lemon juice and peel. If you don’t mind pits in the cooked fruits, leave them in for more flavor. Cooled in the syrup, the loquats can be frozen for months.

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