But now, all of a sudden and faster than I was expecting they’ve all started to quickly turn yellow (and even better a juicy dark orange) and since they are now turning ripe so rapidly, we better eat them quick before the birds (who are somewhat less picky than us) get there first.
I’ve met lots of people who when they first come to the Algarve don’t quite know what to make of the nêsperas and what seems to be the first fruit of the year. While looking at the ‘Gardening in Portugal’ Facebook page (my go-to place to find out about all things exactly that) I saw plenty of people had in the past already asked what they are? And if they were “safe to eat?”. So, I think of this article as a sort of public service announcement: YES, they are absolutely safe, and not just that - they are VERY good for you.
During my research, and with the answers to my own question I posted to pick the brain of the online gardeners, I found out they have no end of health benefits. They are rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fibre and other nutrients that all combine to make them anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory (and so helps fight respiratory diseases), good for constipation (you can thank the fibre for that) and due to the vitamin A they contain, good for your skin, as well as (like carrots) very good for your eyesight too.
Unfortunately, a lot of the trees do suffer from (a bit like pirates) the dreaded ‘Black Spot’, or ‘spots’ in this case. It’s a fungal disease that takes over leaving black marks all over the fruit. In bad cases it may become necessary to cut back the infected areas and maybe even spray them with a concoction of something to treat it (but I’m afraid you will have to ask an expert gardener to tell you exactly what). However, I did read that leaving the tree full of uneaten fruit increases the possibility that the black spot will come to visit, and so, yet another reason that the best thing we can do - is eat them.
They are called Loquats in English and their Latin name is Eriobotrya japonica, which is a big clue to the fact that they are an Oriental fruit that are native to the hills of south-central China and have been cultivated in Japan for over 1,000 years. Little is known about their arrival in Portugal and it is thought that perhaps the Moors brought them, or another theory I heard is that they were brought back by a Portuguese explorer a little later in the 16th century. But however they arrived, the wild birds (that as I said before really like them too) took over full responsibility for their propagation, as they fly off with the fruit dropping the (sometimes up to 5) stone pips to the ground and thus ensuring that we can all go on enjoying these delicious little fruits into the future. (So, try not to get too upset if the birds eat your nêsperas, after all, it was probably them that planted the tree in the first place.)
The virtual gardeners had many suggestions of what you can do with your excess nêsperas, that ranged from making jam, chutney, a tea made from the leaves (like they do in China), some said they are “not bad with sugar, vodka or gin left in a bottle for a few weeks” and some even make their own liqueur out of them, there was even one chap who suggested you skewer them and cook them up on your Turkish kebabs.
All excellent ideas as we do really need to eat them, and they are difficult to store (that’s why you don’t see too many in the shops, and if you do they don’t look that appetizing). But in my humble opinion, nothing beats picking them and eating them fresh under a tree. I would suggest peeling the skin off first and then digging in, minding the pips, and sharing the bits you don’t want with the other creatures on the ground below. Now is the time, there’s enough for everybody, enjoy.