Dear Readers, those of you who saw my birthday post last week will know that I got some unusual ingredients in my vegetable box: salsify (which I roasted and which was delicious) and some kumquats. The name comes from the Cantonese kamkwat ( 金橘) which literally means ‘golden mandarin orange’) and they are native to China, where they have been cultivated since the 12th century. In 1846 the plant hunter Robert Fortune brought them to Europe, and from there they soon arrived in North America.
The ones that I have are unbelievably sour – having had a little taste, I suspect that they will shortly be languishing in a bit of sugar syrup just to take the edge off. But the round kumquat (Citrus japonica) is said to have sweet skin and sour flesh, which must make for a most intriguing flavour. Some species have fruit which is eaten whole, probably by people that have a taste for bitter fruit. I’m sure that in the West at least, our taste buds have been corrupted by the lust for sugar (which would have been a very rare thing in the natural environment, probably limited to berries and honey). When I was in Pakistan for work, I sampled bitter gourd, which is a delicacy throughout the region, and the face that I inadvertently pulled was a source of great amusement to my colleagues.
One variety of kumquat, the Hong Kong kumquat (Citrus hindsii) has pea-sized fruits and enormous seeds, so unsurprisingly it’s grown mostly as an ornamental plant. However, as the kumquats are thought to be the earliest forms of citrus fruit, this species might be the closest we have to the ‘ur-orange’, the ancestral citrus from which all other kinds have evolved.
Kumquats can bear thousands of fruits and, unlike most other citrus, are frost-hardy, which means that they are popular in spite of their sourness. Turned into marmalade they are a useful source of vitamin C, and their fresh taste can be used to offset sweeter ingredients such as chocolate or vanilla. They can also be used in fruit sauces to cut through the fat of meat such as duck or lamb. Very helpfully, 14 chefs give their ideas here. I rather like Nick Leahy’s idea of making a compote to eat with rice pudding: maybe I could dollop some onto my morning porridge? If I don’t get the sweetening right it will certainly wake me up. Or here’s a healthy salad instead.
On a visit to Corfu back when I was a young ‘un, I remember that there was a bright orange liquor called Koum Quat, which was incredibly sweet and sticky. When I dug a bit further though, it appears that the fruit is also made into a clear spirit to be drunk after dinner. Kumquats were apparently introduced to the island in 1860 and have been grown ever since.
In China and some other countries in Asia the kumquat symbolises good luck, and is often given as a gift at Lunar New Year. It’s also a plant that seems to lend itself to being made into a bonsai, and, as people become more urbanised but still crave a bit of ‘nature’. they are becoming very popular. In Vietnam, many garden centres are turning away from selling the traditional trees and are turning to bonsai instead, although it’s an art that cannot be rushed. In the article here, I was amused to learn of the many things that unscrupulous gardeners try to sell their ‘bonsais’, from sticking on false fruit to inconspicuously attaching false branches. It reminds me a bit of the dyed heathers and ‘fake’ flowering cacti that were popping up all over the place a few years ago.
I must say that these bonsais look a bit bigger than I expected though. More like smallish shrubs.
It might also surprise you to know that there is a Kumquat Festival, not in Asia but in Dade County, Florida. Apparently St Joseph, Florida, a nearby town, is the Kumquat Capital of the World. Tens of thousands of people come to the festival, which, in addition to everything kumquat-related, includes an arts and crafts fair, a 5km race in aid of a cancer charity, wagon rides and antique fire engines. In Dade County, everything hangs on the weather – from November to April the blossom appears roughly every fortnight, so there can be almost continual picking. However, in some years a freeze in December or January can destroy the crop and damage the trees, which won’t fruit again for three years. Farming has always been a precipitous business, and with climate change things are more unpredictable than they ever were.
Now, I thought that finding a poem about kumquats was going to be a challenge, but here are the first few verses of Tony Harrison’s poem ‘A Kumquat for John Keats’. I have taken the liberty of editing it down a bit, because for me it says everything it needs to say in the first few stanzas. However, if you want to see if I’m right, you can read the whole thing here. See what you think!
Today I found the right fruit for my prime,
not orange, not tangelo, and not lime,
nor moon-like globes of grapefruit that now hang
outside our bedroom, nor tart lemon’s tang
(though last year full of bile and self-defeat
I wanted to believe no life was sweet)
nor the tangible sunshine of the tangerine,
and no incongruous citrus ever seen
at greengrocers’ in Newcastle or Leeds
mis-spelt by the spuds and mud-caked swedes,
a fruit an older poet might substitute
for the grape John Keats thought to be Joy’s fruit,
when, two years before he died, he tried to write
how Melancholy dwelled inside Delight.* / /
and if John keats had only lived to be,
because of extra years, in need like me,
at 42 he’d help me celebrate
that Micancopy kumquat that I ate
whole, straight off the tree, sweet pulp and sour skin–
or was it sweet outside, and sour within?
For however many kumquats that I eat
I’m not sure if it’s flesh or rind that’s sweet,
and being a man of doubt at life’s mid-way
I’d offer Keats some kumquats and I’d say:
You’ll find that one part’s sweet and one part’s tart:
say where the sweetness or the sourness start.
I find I can’t as if one couldn’t say
exactly where the night became the day,
which makes for me the kumquat taken whole
best fruit, and metaphor, to fit the soul
of one in Florida at 42 with Keats
crunching kumquats, thinking, as he eats
the flesh, the juice, the pith, the pips, the peel,
that this is how a full life ought to feel,
its perishable relish prick the tongue,
when the man who savours life’s no longer young,
the fruits that were his futures far behind.
Then its the kumquat fruit expresses best
how days have darkness behind them like a rind,
life has a skin of death that keeps its zest.
*Cf. John Keats, “Ode on Melancholy,” lines 25-26
Tony Harrison 1981
Photo One By Bernhard Voß – Self-photographed, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10555646
Photo Two by Traci Des Jardins from https://www.foodandwine.com/chefs/how-to-cook-kumquats-chefs
Photo Three by Edal, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Five from http://www.kumquatgrowers.com/festival.html