‘A Kumquat for John Keats’, by Tony Harrison
…That decade or more past Keats’s span
makes me an older not a wiser man,
who knows that it’s too late for dying young,
but since youth leaves some sweetnesses unsung,
he’s granted days and kumquats to express
Man’s Being ripened by his Nothingness…
When you think of kumquats, what flavour springs to mind? Is your memory sweet, or sour?
When I was a kid, my parents cared for a potted kumquat tree (well, I thought it was a kumquat tree, more on that later). They loved this elegant little tree with its glossy leaves, mass of aromatic blossoms, and round, golden fruit that brightened our porch.
I used to try, again and again, to peel and eat the fruit, but it really wasn’t there for the eating.
Over the years, as I’ve lost the child’s obsession with sugar, I have come to really enjoy picking the odd golden kumquat. But they were never the best fruit, the kind you looked forward to. That space in my heart was reserved for cherries, peaches, and mangoes.
And then, on a wander through a market a few years ago, Mr. Small Batch and I spotted some quite different-looking fruit sitting in a small bowl at the counter, labelled ‘Fortunellas’. We bought them out of curiosity, and were immediately hooked.
They were crunchy, sweet-skinned, and when you bit into them they burst with a tiny bit of fragrant, sour juice, which soon disappeared and gave way to sweet flesh again.
In the years since, we’ve become addicted to these, and a devoted customer of specialist farmers The Kumquatery. Every year around late July, a couple of boxes of fresh Nagami kumquats arrives from South Australia, to be ripped open and devoured in short order.
Still, I remained a little confused as to why the round fruit I see left on trees around Australia, are so different to the ones that I get in the post. Sometimes the foraged fruit is good, sometimes bad: kumquats have felt like a bit of a lottery.
Luckily for me farmers are a generous bunch, and Patria at The Kumquatery was happy to walk me through what makes a kumquat, a kumquat, and what to do with a lot of kumquats when you have them!
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your farm?
‘We have a five acre property in Renmark, South Australia, just off the Victorian border, and we’ve been here for around seven years. We grow around 500 kumquat trees.
Seven years ago, we bought the business from somebody else when it was very low key and we thought we could grow the business. We thought there was a niche market and thought we’d give it a go. Since then we’ve opened up the market right across Australia for our fresh fruit and our kumquat products.’
So – I’m not the only weirdo who gets boxes of kumquats in the post?
‘No – there is actually a lot of demand for it!
We could probably sell our entire fresh fruit crop, and sometimes actually have to say no when we get towards the end of the season, or we wouldn’t be able to make and sell our marmalades or our candied kumquats. ‘
‘It’s one of those forgotten fruits that’s not grown much commercially. But people will remember trying one, they’ll get excited to see them for sale and buy some to share with their family and friends. And then those people want to buy more.’
What’s up with these sour kumquats that everyone has in their gardens?
‘That’s actually not a kumquat! The ones you see in front gardens are normally ‘Calamansi’, which is also called ‘Callamondin’; they’re closer to the mandarin family.
When people say they don’t like kumquats, that’s usually the one they’ve had. And I’ll say to them, well, that’s actually not a kumquat. The Calamansi is a different family of plant: if you’ve got a true kumquat, you actually can’t peel it. You eat the whole thing.’
‘You know, everyone has their tastes and lots of people do love the Calamansi style, the sourness of them. Other people would rather have the Nagami or Marumi varieties that we grow. The Nagami is a tangy variety. Marumi is round, and tangy-sweet. Still has a little bit of a tang to it, but a good amount of natural sweetness to it as well.
Marumi has a lot more seeds, where the Nagami usually only has two or three little seeds in it.’
How do you know when a kumquat is ready to be picked?
‘They’re at their best when you’ve got full colour over the whole fruit, so it’s orange from top to bottom, and the calyx (the spot where they connect to the bush) has lost it’s green tinge. That’s when they’re sweetest.
Size doesn’t matter at all: big or little, they are all great just as long as they are beautifully bright orange all over.’
And people leave them on the tree for a long time. Is that bad?
‘No, they actually hang on the trees very well. We can actually get a good three to four months’ harvest with them.
And a kumquat tree will have a couple sets of flowers over the summer, so you can have two or three crops on your tree at once. Your harvest keeps going that little bit longer.’
On that note, how can people get the best out of the fruit?
‘Really the best way to enjoy it is straight away. As with any kind of fruit, it’s always at its prime as soon as it’s picked and delivered. Turn it into something great, or eat it right away. Don’t let it sit around in the back of the fridge for a couple of weeks, because you’re going to lose all the beautiful tenderness of the fruit.’
I have a bowl of them on my kitchen table, and we eat one every time we walk past. They’re like fruity Sour Patch Kidz.
‘That’s perfect. They should be enjoyed and shared.’
Is there a variety of kumquats that you really wish you could grow, but for some reason you can’t?
‘I would love to have the new seedless variety of Nagami. There’s one in America, but you can’t import it into Australia. I make a lot of marmalade, and that would really save me some time!’
Apart from just eating them, how do you use lots of kumquats?
‘There’s so many different things you can do with a fresh fruit or even any of the products we sell. We turn a lot of them into candied kumquats and ‘kumquat crumble’. And I actually just stir the crumble through scones. Phenomenal with a little bit of butter straight at the oven.
Our kumquat syrup is also great for marinading chicken, with a little bit of fresh thyme, some garlic, chicken fillet or chicken kebabs. Let it marinate for a couple of hours in the fridge and then chuck it on the barbecue. Yum.’
What to do with a lot of kumquats
In celebration of the harvest, I made up a batch of an old Italian liqueur called ‘kumquat elixir’ with white vermouth, vodka, lemon zest and spices. You can find the recipe here. Some other ideas I’ve used and enjoyed over the years include:
Kumquat marmalade (English style, made by charming French American Bruno Albouze)
Kumquat marmalade (Moroccan style)
Kumquatcello: macerate the whole fruit and wait at least a month before moving on with the recipe
Kumquats are delicious sliced thinly tossed through a salad or a fruit salad, or muddled into a cocktail
Rumquats: stick your kumquats with a pin a few times: stash them in a jar with rum and sugar.
Brandied kumquats with Stephanie Alexander’s recipe
Pickled Kumquats: use any recipe for Indian Lime Pickle, but substitute kumquats. It’s a little sweeter and less aggressive than a lime pickle, and every bit as fragrant
Or do as I do, most of the time: crunch them between your teeth and enjoy.
Do you have a favourite kumquat recipe? I’d love to know about it and to add it to this list…
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