Mack appreciated the cumquat. Every March he appeared at my unit like an apparition, with a stepladder shoved under his left armpit, grasping two buckets with his wrinkled hands. He didn’t need to ask; it was an unspoken agreement that he could help himself to the fruit from the tree in my small yard. I let him through the back gate and he set himself up. I watched through the kitchen window as Mack plucked the squishy mandarin-like fruit with its sour aroma, squeezing the orange skin slightly in his hands before letting it drop into the bucket with a plop.
He would make jars and jars of marmalade.
“Bloody good stuff,” he told me later. “Sure you don’t want some? Great on toast with butter.”
I wrinkled my nose. I could imagine the tartness on my tongue, the jelly hitting the back of my throat.
He laughed. “Well, more for me.”
Mack said farewell and I spent the rest of the day humming ‘Lady Marmalade’.
I wanted to appreciate the cumquat. It’s a hardy oriental fruit that thrives in hot summers and survives through -10C winters. Cumquat is king of the obscure. Odd to pronounce, it makes strange jellies, weirder desserts and tarty jams that only Heston Blumenthal wannabes want to replicate.
In Asian cultures the fruit is presented to others as an ornamental gift of good luck for the Lunar New Year. The cumquat is pretty with orange, olive-sized orbs and adds a lavish exotic look to any garden. But delicious? I discovered quickly that this luck did not extend to one’s tastebuds.
My tree flourished and produced hundreds of tiny fruit throughout the year. Even with Mack’s help and the greedy fat possums, their abundance was so great they fell all over the path. I couldn’t help but wish life had granted me a lemon tree.
But still I tried to find recipes to make it edible, either as a meal, a snack or a juice, as long as it wasn’t marmalade. I was a university student and desperate for any freebies I could find hanging in my backyard.
First, I tried to swallow the wrinkly sour pieces like a mandarin. Surely something that foul tasting was good for you? Google promised it was a scurvy preventative and better than oranges to reduce the duration of a cold. I ate only two pieces of the fruit before I feared my screwed-up sour face would cause permanent wrinkles.
If I had been a savvy marketer, I would’ve tried to offload them to neighbours and friends as a superfood or a new form of extreme fruit.
Do you like extreme sports? Well, you’ll love cumquats, the extreme fruit that is like base jumping for your tastebuds, you’re not sure whether you’ll live to tell the story! Forget the high peaks of Tibet! This superfood can be sourced from the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. Yours for free, with a complimentary plastic bag!
I suspect Dade City, Florida, has used some clever marketing to attract 40,000 people to its yearly cumquat festival. At the self-proclaimed Cumquat Capital of the World, festival-goers celebrate the unique fruit by eating it in cookies, smoothies and other foodstuffs and have in-depth discussions on the marvels of the fruit without wrinkling up their noses.
If only Melburnians were crazier, like those Americans, and appreciated the sour sensation. As the year progressed the fruit continued to fall and rot onto the ground. But I wouldn’t give up. I couldn’t.
My final attempt occurred one night when a friend came over with Corona beers.
“I forgot the lemon,” he said. “Should I pop over to the supermarket?”
The supermarket was next door, it was an easy solution, but a flicker of orange caught my eye. Was this the moment it had been waiting for? I went outside and returned with a miniature bulb of orange. I peeled back the layers and handed him a piece.
My friend looked puzzled but accepted the small fruit. He wedged the orange pulp into his drink. I thought, is this it? Is this the moment where cumquats could be appreciated? Would Coronas be served with cumquats from now on?
He lifted the drink to his mouth.
He screwed up his nose.
Sometimes while I eat my breakfast I like to think Mack is doing the same thing. But rather than eating Weet-Bix, I imagine he has his feet propped up in warm slippers, munching on a piece of toast spread thick with cumquat marmalade. He has all the luck.
First published in The Big Issue #482, August 2015