NEW PORT RICHEY — Come Saturday morning a small fruit with a fuzzy skin will take the spotlight as the annual Florida Loquat Festival gets underway at a new location.
For a few short hours, it's everything loquats — jams to taste, trees to plant and educational offerings — all in a natural setting.
The festival, founded three years ago to shed light on an under-appreciated, locally grown fruit, had been held at Rose's Market off Main, a homey restaurant alongside the Pithlachascotee River in downtown New Port Richey. When the bistro relocated to Grand Boulevard, organizers found a perfect alternative down river, at Frances Avenue Park.
"There's all sorts of advantages to the park, yet it's not overdone," festival founder and organizer Dell deChant said. "There's amenities for the children. There's a lot of green space."
Those who have never tasted a loquat will have the chance at the festival — whether it be taking a turn at peeling back the skin to get a taste of mildly sweet, fleshy raw fruit, or purchasing a jar of homemade preserves. Those wanting to grow their own can purchase a tree from two local vendors on site.
The event, hosted by Ecology Florida and Friendship Farms & Fare, also has a decidedly educational slant, said deChant, a master instructor in religious studies at the University of South Florida who also chairs the New Port Richey Environmental Committee. In the mix will be the opportunity to attend an educational seminar or hear poetry readings at the "O! Loquat" literary festival within the festival.
There is something to be said of this hardy fruit that originated in southeast China and parts of Japan. The loquat made a roundabout journey through Europe, Africa, South and Central America before landing in Florida in the 1860s.
While greening, thought to be caused by a devastating bacterium, has damaged citrus groves throughout the state, the loquat thrives in local landscapes unattended, deChant points out. Many homeowners don't know anything about those trees in their yard that are presently sprouting pint-sized golden-tinged fruit which, more often than not, are devoured by birds or drop to the ground to rot.
There's an abundance still out there and festival organizers and volunteers have been harvesting loquats from 40 trees owned by 25 residents in the New Port Richey area and beyond.
Sylvia Spencer, 41, of New Port Richey is one of those volunteers. She has enjoyed a more-recent introduction to the fruit she describes as a cross between a pear and an apple.
"I'm a Florida native. I grew up here — graduated from Gulf High — and I never knew of the loquat," she said.
Spencer has been experimenting in her home kitchen with the help of her son, Houston, 13, who tends to the tedious task of de-seeding buckets of fruit.
She created a recipe for loquat chicken glaze and graham-cracker crusted pie filled with a mix of chilled pureed champagne loquats and organic cream cheese and whipped cream. She has also put up several jars of preserves to sell at the festival.
"I love to cook," Spencer said. "I've found that any kind of recipe you can do with another kind of fruit you can pretty much do with a loquat."
Contact Michele Miller at [email protected] Follow at MicheleMiller52.