SIDON, Lebanon: William Hanna races against time to pick the loquat fruit, which have ripened in his sprawling grove on one of the hills in the Sidon village of Bqosta. He has only 30 days to pick the fruit before it spoils in the heat.
This fruit cannot be stored or kept in refrigerators for very long, so it must be eaten during its season, which starts in April.
“Farmers wait for the loquat season every year to make up for the bad economic situation,” he says. “This tree is an evergreen tree, but its season is very short, because it yields fruit for only one month.”
Hanna is one of a dwindling number of farmers who continue growing loquat – known as “akedinia” locally – in the villages of Bqosta and Alman, north of the Awwali River. Loquats are also grown in the groves of Mjadal and Kfar Hata in Iqlim al-Tuffah. In the south and around Sidon – areas once famous for loquat – production of the fruit has receded about 90 percent.
Farmers slowly switched to less expensive fruits to harvest, such as bananas, avocados and ashta, which require fewer field hands to harvest.
Though the loquat has murky origins, stories claim the fruit came to Lebanon from Turkey and China.
Among the fruit’s biggest fans is the head of the Future bloc Fouad Siniora, and there are several loquat trees planted at the garden of his office in Sidon.
The loquat fruit grows in clusters, is pear-shaped, and has from one to five seeds on the inside. The fruit on the trees changes from green to yellow or orange as it ripens. A ripe loquat is sweet and acidic.
The loquat comes in several varieties. The local fruit is round and yellow, with four to five seeds. There is also a second type cultivated in Sidon, which is common throughout Arab markets. That variety is sweet and golden in color with one to three seeds.
There are other kinds like Champaign, which is elongated, sweet with a golden color and has only one seed.
“The origin of this tree is from Turkey,” Hanna says. “We have several local kinds that are sweeter. As for the other brands that have a bigger size, they come from France and Spain. The Turkish kind have no flavor.”
Loquat’s contain 35 percent protein, 37 percent fiber, 10 percent carbohydrates and offer malic, oxalic and citric acid as well as vitamin C.
The fruit is particularly beneficial for digestion and is less harmful than sweeter fruits for diabetics.
And superstition drives pregnant women to the loquat orchards in order to ward off strange birthmarks on their baby, Hanna says.
Some say that the loquat is similar to an apple fruit in terms of nutritional benefits, however, its season is short and the fruit is more expensive, since it comes at a time of the year when the fruit market is nearly empty.
Hanna works alongside his hired Syrian workers, his hands full of clusters of yellow fruit.
He says that the evergreen fruit tree flowers in November; farmers spray the trees with the pesticides to prevent harmful insects, mold and fungus during March; and the fruit ripens by April.
“Coastal farmers start picking their fruits 15 days before the high mountainous groves because the high temperatures facilitate its ripening,” Hanna says.
Hanna recalls a better time when his father called loquats “the yellow gold” because of the large profits he made off the fruit.
“We still profit from it but less than before,” he says.
Each loquat tree yields between 150 to 200 kilograms of ripe fruit every season and the tree will continue to bear fruit for around 50 to 70 years.
Hanna explains that the new trees will start yielding fruit when they are 3 years old. The trees are watered by rainfall during the wet winter season, and in the summer farmers use traditional irrigation methods from the beginning of June until October.
Syrian agricultural worker Najib Hilal holds baskets full of loquats and rushes to empty them at the packing room, where Syrian women sort the fruit and package it.
Most of the loquat trees in Sidon have been uprooted as a result of construction projects. But some area families cling to their traditional tree. Old homes are recognizable from their staple loquat trees in the yard.
Ali Darazi owns such a house in Sidon with a large garden. “It is a beautiful tree and stays green all year,” he says. “It shades the house and birds share our love for its sweet taste. It is such a pity that all the groves in Sidon are turned now into cement blocks.”
Syrian laborer Nazir Naser entertains himself with singing while he climbs the loquat tree to pick its fruit. The owner of the groves, Nabil Ibrahim, calls out for his workers to speed things up, as the weather is steadily getting warmer.
Ibrahim, who is in his 70s, still climbs the ladders to help pick the fruit:
“Twenty years ago the whole region here was planted with loquat trees. But urbanization and alternative modern agriculture like avocado and ashta have damaged the future of this tree because they are less expensive and they don’t need much manpower.”
Nearly half of the season’s profits will go the wages of the laborers and the packing of the fruit, he says.
“We used to export our product to the Arab countries by land from Lebanon to Syria and Jordan and from there to the Gulf countries,” he says. “But the roads through Syria are blocked now and full of dangers. We are exporting by air and sea, which increases the expenses and decreases our profit.”
Noting the beauty of the trees, Ibrahim adds that they also offer protection from strong air and storms due to their thick evergreen leaves. Many citrus farmers plant loquat on the periphery of their groves to protect their other fruit trees.
Ibrahim will work 40 days this season picking the fruit, he says: “And the season this year is excellent.”
Loquat Upside-down Cake
Loquat Upside-down Cake
- 25 loquats
- 2 eggs
- 125 g yogurt
- 100 ml milk
- 250 g butter
- 250 g cake flour
- 100 g brown sugar
- 100 g sugar
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 0.5 tsp salt
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 200 Celsius and line a 20 cm-diameter baking tin with parchment paper.
Prepare the loquat topping by cutting them each in half. Then over low heat, melt half of the butter, add the brown sugar and cook for two minutes. Pour the butter-sugar mixture into the cake tin and arrange loquats in the mixture, cut side down.
For the cake, sift together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. In a separate dish, mix the yogurt, milk, eggs and vanilla. Add the wet ingredients into the dry, mixing until you have a creamy, even batter.
Pour the mixture carefully over the loquats and bake for about 50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Leave to cool, then gently turn upside down and remove the baking paper.