"You’ll find that one part’s sweet and one part’s tart: say where the sweetness or the sourness start."
Tony Harrison, ‘A Kumquat for John Keats, 1981
Saturday I fought the elements (hail, downpour, sideway’s rain, cold wind) working at the market. Everything’s a bit out of order as the wet winter weather is holding on longer than usual. One of the items that I was helping Will to sell were kumquats. And surprisingly, many San Franciscans had never tried one before. I found endless entertainment in daring people into trying these little berry shaped citrus fruits. Inevitably, after trying one they would end up buying a handful or two.
Native to Asia, the kumquat is said to take its name from the Chinese, chin kan, or golden orange. Although these citrus orbs are closely related to citrus species, kumquats belong to the genus Fortunella after a plant collector for the London Horticultural Society, Robert Fortune introduced them from Asia to Europe in 1846. Years later the small trees could be found presented to dinner guests in order that they could pick their dessert.
In contrast to citrus which has 8-15 sections, kumquats have only 3-6 sections; also the skin is thin, soft and edible. The fruit grows on an evergreen shrub or small tree with bright green pointed leaves and orange perfumed blossoms. While there are four different kinds of kumquats, the one you see most often is the olive-shaped Nagami; it’s usually 1 to 2 inches long. This varitety is excellent for cooking with particularly jams as it is bitter. The other is the egg-shaped Meiwa which is often referred to as the sweet kumquat. They have few seeds. Since they lack the tart-like quality that is ideal in cooking Meiwas are perfect for cold salads or for snacking on. It debuted in the States from Japan around 1910.
Available from December through May when buying kumquats look for a firm skin, bright color and unblemished skin. Grown in China, Southeast Asia, Japan, Europe (Corfu, Greece), and in the U.S. Southern California and Florida they are a bit of a indulgence costwise but some of you pay as much for that morning coffee.
Given its hardiness to weather conditions kumquats make for good hybirds. Mandarinquat is the marriage of mandarin orange and kumquat; it has an edible rind and a sour inside. This can be eaten as is or used as an edible garnish. And when a Mexican lime and a kumquat get together you have a limequat, often see as a a pickling or for a tasty marmalade for crumpets or grilled toast.
Aside from the simple joy you’ll discover of popping the delights into your mouth there are many ways to experiment with this fruit. Candied kumquats make an great decoration and topping for cakes or as pour a kumquat-caramel syrup over fresh vanilla bean ice cream or how about as a main course as offered by Jean Georges Vongerichten in his Spice-Rubbed Chicken with Lemongrass dressing, unexpected spicy and sweet. A homemade liqueur of infused vodka from kumquats; a riff on the tomato themed Catalan toast replaces the tomato pulp with a mash of butter and kumquats or as they do in China where the fruit is preserved in salt and then the salted kumquats along with a few teaspoons of the brine and some hot water is offered as a remedy for sore throats.
The chocolate-obsessed pastry chef Marcel Desaulniers (he’s sexy with his East Coast accent with a hint of Southern) features a Ginger Macadamia Nut Cake with a chocolate kumquat mousse filling in one of his many cookbooks. While the cake and the elegant filling are an inspired meeting the mousse can sing all on its own.
Chocolate Kumquat Mousse
from Death by Chocolate Cakes by Marcel Desaulniers
1/2 pound small fresh kumquats, washed and dried
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup heavy cream
4 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate, coarsely chopped and melted
Trim about 1/4 inch from each end of the kumquats. Cut each kumquat into 1/4 -inch-thick slices. (The 1/2 pound should yield about 1 1/2 cups sliced.) Pick out and discard the occasional seed from the kumquat slices. Set aside.
Heat 1/4 cup of the sugar and 1/2 cup water in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. When hot, stir to dissolve the sugar. Bring to a boil. Add the sliced kumquats and stir to incorporate. Bring to a boil again; then adjust the heat to allow the mixture to cook at a slow boil for 12 minutes until the kumquat slices are tender and sweet. Strain the kumquats and discard the cooking syrup. Transfer the kumquat slices to a baking sheet or large plate and spread evenly. Place, uncovered, in the refrigerator to cool.
Finely chop the remaining kumquats with a cook’s knife. Set aside while preparing the mousse.
Place 1 cup heavy cream and the remaining 1/4 cup sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a balloon whip. Whisk on medium-high for 2 minutes until firm, but not stiff, peaks form. Add about 3/4 cup of the whipped cream to the bowl of melted unsweetened chocolate, and use a rubber spatula to fold together until thoroughly combined. Add the combined whipped cream and chocolate to the remaining whipped cream, and use a rubber spatula until thoroughly combined. Transfer 1/4 cup of chocolate mousse to a pastry bag fitted with a medium star tip. Add the chopped kumquats to the remaining mousse, and use a spatula to fold them in together until the mixture is thoroughly combined. Refrigerate the mousse in the pastry bag. Pipe into serving dishes or champagne flutes and chill until ready to serve.
Image: A. Vuillon/Art.com