You know you're on your way to mastering a foreign language when you're able to glean information regarding the flavour, texture and culinary potential of a strange fruit that you've never seen before, entirely in the vernacular. Such was the case in Italy last week, when I stumbled across a box of 'nespole' in a little fruit shop. I'd never seen them before; they looked rather like apricots, but more oval-shaped. Intrigued, I asked the shop-owner, a devastatingly sweet little old lady, if she knew what they were called in English. She shook her head. A rather faltering (on my part) Italian dialogue then ensued, during which I attempted to find out if they were like apricots, and - more importantly - if they were edible raw, or likely to poison me. The lady was effervescent about the virtues of this fruit, to the extent that she picked one up and started stroking it, and assured me that it was "dolce, dolce!" My curiosity got the better of me, and I bought one, to her immense delight.
After a brief exchange during which I thought she was telling me about an English man she was going to marry in April, and which I later realised was her asking about the Royal Wedding (the word principe should probably have given it away - running a greengrocers didn't seem like the typical choice of job for an Italian prince's fiancee), I unwrapped my curious fruit from its paper bag and took a bite. It was delicious, and unlike any fruit I've tasted before. It had the texture of an apricot or a peach, but a more watery, juicy texture and a tartness reminiscent of underripe pineapple. Delighted, I decided I was going to buy a big bag to take home and experiment with in the kitchen.
Unfortunately, Mr Ryanair got in the way of these plans. My luggage was already four kilos over the allowance (which resulted in me having to carry back three kilos of rice, four cakes and a packet of biscuits in my hand luggage), and realistically I would never have been able to take a huge bag of fruit home without it turning to mulch, even if I could have fitted it in my bag. I said goodbye to Italy and to the nespole, wistfully thinking of culinary possibilities that might have been.
A quick google informed me that the more commonly-known (at least in England) name for these fruit is loquats. This excited me a little, because I had actually heard of them, and because I'm rather enjoying kumquats at the moment. It was rather like meeting the parents of a boyfriend you really like, and discovering that they too are excellent specimens of the human race. The 'quat' family keeps getting better and better with every introduction.
So imagine my sheer, unadulterated delight when, shopping in Cambridge market yesterday, I stumbled upon a box of 'nesperos', from Spain. They were right there, at the forefront of the market stall, as if the hand of some gastronomic god had descended from heaven and placed them there for me to witness. I eagerly bought a kilo, mind ablaze with excitement and wild culinary ideas. I am not ashamed to say that this literally made my day. I know it's a bit tragic, but I do get unfeasibly excited about new ingredients and new ways of cooking them, and couldn't wait to try out the loquats in a recipe other than simply 'eating raw in the streets of Vercelli'.
The ones I bought weren't completely ripe: they were very tart and had an astringency rather like a lemon. It was clear that I'd have to cook them before I did anything, which meant that the lovely custard tart with a topping of sliced loquats would have to take a back seat for a while. Undeterred, I quartered them, and mixed them with some brown sugar, orange flower water, cinnamon, and apricot jam. The reason being that they are similar, in a kitchen context, to apricots, and I usually bake apricots with honey, orange flower and cinnamon to bring out their rich sweetness. The apricot jam added a tart sugary flavour that really enhanced the loquats. The smell of the baked fruit emerging from the oven was sublime.
The loquats would have been perfect just like this, with no other adornment than maybe a scoop of vanilla ice cream (or one of my more strange flavours, like lemon thyme or Earl Grey), but it struck me that their gorgeous marigold colour would look beautiful atop a mound of snowy meringue, and the sugary crispness of the meringue would marry perfectly with their dense, grainy texture and tart sweetness.
I whipped up a batch of meringues in the KitchenAid, baked them for half an hour, scattered with flaked almonds, and they were ready for their topping. Instead of whipped cream I used ricotta sweetened with icing sugar - I much prefer this as a meringue topping, and generally for any occasion where cream is required, largely because I don't like whipped cream (it tastes of air! it's a waste of calories! I'd much rather skip the whipped cream with my cake and have more cake!). A little ricotta, a pile of glistening, fiery loquat slices, and a nest of meringue, crumbly and crispy on the outside but beautifully gooey in the middle. I was delighted when I served them to a Spanish student we have staying with us, and she recognised the fruit at once: "we have these in our garden - nesperos!"
Oh. Actual bliss. I cannot express how delicious this is. Loquats are going to be my new fruit obsession. The remaining fruit I had on porridge for breakfast, with a drizzle of its roasting syrup, and it was probably the best start to the day I've had for a long time.
Thank you, little Italian greengrocer, for bringing this wondrous fruit into my life. Grazie mille.
Roasted loquat meringues (serves 5):
300g loquats, quartered and stones removed (you could also use apricots or plums)
2 dsp apricot jam
3 dsp brown sugar
1 tsp orange flower water (optional, but lends a lovely fragrance)
2 tsp water
1 tsp ground cinnamon
175g caster sugar
3 egg whites
A handful of flaked almonds (optional)
Half a tub of ricotta cheese
4 tbsp icing sugar
First, place the loquats in a dish with the jam, sugar, cinnamon, flower water and normal water. Roast in the oven at 170C for about 30 minutes, until the fruit has softened and the liquid and jam has formed a syrup. Remove and leave at room temperature. Turn the oven down to 160C.
For the meringues, beat the egg whites until thick and soft peaks form. Gradually add the sugar until the mixture is the consistency of shaving foam. Make five little nests on a sheet of baking parchment with the mixture and a spatula, then scatter over some flaked almonds, if using.
Place the meringues in the hot oven and immediately turn the temperature down to 130C. Bake for half an hour, then leave to cool with the oven door slightly ajar.
Mix the ricotta with the icing sugar. Spoon a little on top of each meringue, then top with a spoonful of roasted loquats. Dust with icing sugar and serve immediately.