DADE CITYAs with wine, there is a method to the tasting of a kumquat, one that Greg Gude is happy to demonstrate in a grove just steps away from Kumquat Growers Inc., the packing house he oversees in the rolling farming community of St. Joseph.Finding the perfect fruit — one not too green or too leathery and void of blemishes — isn't difficult at all. Unlike years past when hard frosts or citrus canker threatened the crop, this year's harvest season is well worth celebrating during the Jan. 28 Kumquat Festival in downtown Dade City."This year we've had just the right amount of rain, just the right amount of drought," said Gude, 53, as he made his way to a tree brimming with fruit. "The freeze earlier this month had us a little worried, but we had no damage."The tiny kumquat, a distant relative of the citrus family, with Asian roots, is a fruit that should be clipped with a rounded pair of shears rather than plucked, lest the small exotic be damaged, Gude explained as he fetched a half dozen or so of the Nagami variety. "The kumquat is high in vitamin C, potassium and fiber. . . . It's the perfect palate cleanser. And the name brings a lot of humor."Once in hand, you gingerly pull off the stem, then roll the tiny fruit between your fingers and watch as the essential oils begin to weep through the thin peel."Then you smell it — taste a little of it on your fingers first," Gude said, before popping one into his mouth, peel and all. "Once you chew it you're getting to the finish. It's a little bitter — tart — but now here comes the sweetness for me. It's an experience in itself."The kumquat has come a long way since it was introduced to Florida in the late 1880s. Landing in St. Joe in the early 1900s, the fruit then was primarily used for decorations for Chinese New Year celebrations, table arrangements or as a packing material that was perfect for cushioning oranges and grapefruits.A lot of locals began growing the fruit among their other crops, said Gude, one of six brothers who started helping the family business when he was about 13.Now it's known as the Kumquat Capital, though growers in California might have some dispute with that, Gude said, adding that he'd be willing to "go up against them, tree to tree." Chefs eventually discovered the fruit's tangy yet sweet appeal. Now the kumquat can be found in parts far and wide and in all sorts of culinary concoctions: marmalades, jellies, barbecue sauce, relishes, pie, wine and beer.The Kumquat Festival got its start in 1996. Last year about 40,000 people showed up, he said, noting that no one worries about competition with the Gasparilla Pirate Festival, held the same day."Our festival is a very big deal, a family kind of event," he said. "People who like beer and beads go to Gasparilla, though they might want to try a kumquat in that beer rather than a lime from Mexico."Some activities have already been held such as the Kumquat Recipe Contest, the Miss and Mr. Kumquat pageant and Dade City Merchant's Window Decorating Contest. More are yet to come, such as the open house held in the two days before the festival at the Growers House and of course the festival itself, with food, crafts, entertainment, a farmers market, kids' activities and more."We give away a lot," Gude said. "The churches sell pies. Some sell cookies and other items made with kumquats. People come from all over and see what's going on here, then they learn that Dade City is a nice little town."With an exotic commodity.Michele Miller can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6251.