Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Charleston loquat grows in Raleigh – and may yield Lee Bros. liqueur

About a dozen years ago, we enjoyed our first road trip to Charleston. We’ve never forgotten the city’s many charms and likely never will, since we carried home a tiny memento that now looms large.

“Ah, loquats,” sighed Ted Lee during a recent call to promote The Lee Bros. Charleston Cookbook (Clarkson Potter) when told the tale of our seed-turned-tree. “What a great souvenir. We may be on tour during loquat season, but fortunately I’ve got someone who will collect them for me.”

While Lee’s fruit is harvested from a massive, Confederate-era tree that yields mountains of the small soft-skinned citrus, our loquat started from purloined seeds of fruit picked on the sly. It has taken deep root in Raleigh soil, but it may still pine for home as it’s been stingy about producing fruit since we dragged it past the state line.

Much as we enjoyed the Holy City's sights and experiences - with its battlegrounds and ghost tours, Charleston was our 10-year-old son’s dream getaway – the hotel pool became our favorite place to escape the afternoon heat. Graham discovered he could slip his hand through the fence and pluck handfuls of unfamiliar ripe fruit from a nearby tree.
“Eat this,” he said, offering me a handful of small yellow-orange orbs unlike anything I’d eaten before. I ate one tentatively, then popped several more. “They might be poisonous,” he suggested as I paused briefly mid-chew to consider the idea. “No, I don’t think so,” I said. “But they certainly have a lot of seeds.”

It was, of course, the loquat, a curious citrus that is common to the region and adored by locals for their sweet-tangy taste. Graham was not as fascinated by the fruit as its seeds, which he collected in a plastic bag. He announced that, like great explorers before us, we would take them home and plant an orchard.

Tim dutifully planted a few seeds in a pot, and we were amused when they sprouted. It grew tall and hearty, demanding a new pot every few years and eventually became too huge and heavy to drag indoors each winter.

A few years ago, it finally found a permanent home in a sunny spot where our house meets the driveway. It was maybe three feet tall then; it now nudges the roofline.

Two springs ago we enjoyed our first harvest. We ate them with a homesteader’s enthusiasm, cooking with some but neglecting to save any for canning or other more long-lasting purposes. The following spring, not a single fruit appeared.

Photo of Ted Lee's personal stash of  Loquat Liqueur,
from his Brooklyn kitchen.
A mild winter cruelly encouraged it to bloom early this year, and a subsequent cold snap turned the fragrant ivory blooms brown. We remain hopeful, however, as it appears to be full of buds. If they grace us with their bounty, we will make loquat liqueur from Charleston Kitchen.

Ted Lee says the simple-to-make infusion can be enjoyed in as little as two to three weeks, but it’s best if tucked out of sight to let the fruit slowly surrender its essence.

“Matt and I are really different in a lot of ways,” he says. “He can wait that long. I’m like, look, it’s got a bit of tint and I’ve got some flavor and I’m going to start drinking it.”

Given his exuberance, Lee admits it’s rather odd that he has two Mason jars still packed with loquats and liquor. He promptly emailed this photo as proof.

“It’s important for people to not be put off when the loquats oxidize and turn brown,” he says. “The infusion is tinted yellow and the flavor is like cherry almonds. It mimics that sort of maraschino cherry taste when you add it to Manhattans,” as they suggest in the book. “It’s got a round cherry taste, kind of like a Luxardo.”
Loquat Liqueur
Reprinted by permission of Ted Lee from The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen, @2013 by Clarkson Potter.

Makes: About 3 cups liqueur
Time: 3 minutes to prepare, two weeks steeping
4 cups loquats, washed (about 1¼ pounds)
2-3 cups vodka, preferably Ciroc

Put the loquats in a quart-size Mason jar. Top the jar with the vodka and let stand for two weeks before using (many Charlestonians prefer to wait 1 year). The vodka will keep for a few years at room temperature.
Loquat Manhattan

2 ounces (1/4 cup) rye whiskey or bourbon
1 ounce (2 tablespoons) Loquat Liqueur
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Ice cubes
1- to 2-inch strip of orange peel (for garnish)

Pour the rye and the loquat liqueur into a bar mixing glass or pint glass, and shake the bitters on top. Fill the glass with ice. With a bar spoon, stir the cocktail for 15 to 20 seconds using a swift circular motion to avoid introducing bubbles into the liquor. Strain the cocktail into a champagne coupe. (If you prefer to serve it over ice, put 1 or 2 small ice cubes into a rock glass and pour the cocktail into the glass.) Pinch the orange peel over the cocktail to release its oils onto the surface, brush the rim of the glass with the peel, and drop it in.

1 comment:

  1. How close to the drive did you plant your tree? I've read they are a challenge with messing up cars and walkways. Also, any trouble with having the leaves sunburn? I'm considering moving mine because some of the leaves scorched last year, but I want to choose my new location carefully.
    That Loquat Manhattan looks like it would taste more like an Old Fashioned, but I'm a fan of both cocktails.Hope I get fruit so I can try it.