DADE CITY — The kumquat, a pint-size citrus fruit with a powerful punch, is an exotic that originally hails from south Asia. It can be popped in the mouth whole or mashed and mixed into confections, casseroles or desserts.
According to Dade City native Margie Goodwin, it takes a lot of thinking and experimentation to conjure up palate-pleasing recipes such as kumquat chicken chili, kumquat chicken and wild rice, kumquat cannoli cake, kumquat dream bars and a dessert she calls kumquat bliss.
Come Saturday morning, the former schoolteacher and eight-time recipe contest winner at the Kumquat Festival will head out before dawn to deliver the signature kumquat scones she baked the night before.
"They're what I'm known for," said Goodwin, who traditionally doles out her treats to the volunteers who arrive at 4 a.m. for the Greater Dade City Chamber of Commerce Kumquat Festival, which takes place Saturday. Goodwin herself has served as a volunteer for 15 years, along with her husband, Luther.
"It's fabulous," she said. "We have people coming from everywhere to see it. It's such a family event."
The one-day gala attracts upward of 40,000 to Dade City's historic downtown, many who are yearning for a taste of kumquat jam and jelly, salsa and smoothies, cookies and pie, and other goodies.
More than a little preparation and a lot of fruit goes into the quirky food festival. There's the delicate business of harvesting, packing and then grinding the petite, orange-colored fruit — peel and all — into puree. Add to that the mass making of kumquat pies.
"We sell over 1,000 pies," said Margie Neuhofer of Kumquat Growers Inc. in Dade City. "The more we make, the more we sell."
That's cause for celebration.
But there's also concern this year for future harvests in the fabled "Kumquat Capital of the World."
Since 1971, the Neuhofer and Gude families have shared ownership of Kumquat Growers. Their groves provide much of the fruit sold locally, and some of what is shipped out of state, especially for the Chinese New Year, when the customary display of kumquats in one's home is a symbol of prosperity.
Too much rain, not enough rain and untimely freezes are traditional concerns. More worrisome lately is Huanglongbing, or citrus greening, thought to be caused by a devastating bacteria carried by the Asian citrus psyllid.
"It's a bug that goes here, there and yonder," said Neuhofer, who figures that 65 percent to 70 percent of their kumquat trees have been lost. "The first weekend of October, we counted nine bad trees in one row. The last week, there were 23. That was just in one row."
Kumquats are typically harvested from November through April. This season looks to be an abbreviated one.
"We are going to have enough fruit for the festival," Neuofer said. "But I don't predict we'll be open through April."
The Neuhofers will plant 1,000 trees over the spring and summer, but it will be years before those trees can replace what has been lost.
"Probably next year we will see the worst of it," Neuhofer said. "It'll take a little while before we get back in good business. Right now, we're just taking it one week at a time."
In the meantime, the Kumquat Festival remains a celebratory boon for the industry, local businesses and those seeking an alternative to the more rowdy Gasparilla pirate festival in Tampa.
In addition to kumquat sundries, there will be live entertainment, arts and crafts, a farmers market, a car and truck show, a quilt challenge, a health and wellness area, and activities for kids.
New this year is a kumquat recipe contest featuring dishes whipped up at local restaurants. In the past, the contest heralded the recipes of local residents such as Goodwin. But interest dwindled, and organizers decided to change it up.
"We hadn't seen a whole lot of entries, and we decided to go about it in a different way," said Fanchone Gude, who is organizing the contest with Ben Pumo of Benedetto's Ristoranti Italiano in Land O'Lakes.
Gude hopes this year's contest will shine a light on local restaurateurs, noting that a list of recipes and the names of the restaurants serving them will be provided at the festival for those who might enjoy a kumquat-inspired meal away from the crowd.
Contact Michele Miller at [email protected] Follow @MicheleMiller52.