The kumquat was brought to Corfu from the Far East and there are two different versions concerning its introduction to the Greek island (though they are not necessarily mutually exclusive). The first attributes the transplantation of the tree to Corfu from Japan in the years 1846 – 1847 as part of British colonial commercial efforts on the island. For, as a result of the Treaty of Paris (1815), the Ionian Islands were subsumed as a protectorate of the United Kingdom. The second anecdote ascribes the arrival of the kumquat to a Greek born British colonial by the name of Sidney Merlin. Mr. Merlin was a gold medalist for Great Britain in Shooting at the Athens 1906 Olympic Games (Did you know Athens has hosted three Olympic Games?). He was also an avid amateur botanist and extensive traveler with ties to diplomatic circles, and according to this version of events, it was he who reportedly brought the tree back with him from Japan in 1924. Today, the kumquat orchards of the Merlin Estate on Corfu are a popular tourist sight. Whichever version is correct, Corfu has since remained as the only place the kumquat is extensively cultivated in Europe, and its products have been registered as P.D.O. by the European Union.
One interesting Corfiote tradition that has developed along with the cultivation of the kumquat relates to the kumquat liqueur I mentioned above. When a baby is born to a Corfiote couple, a bottle of kumquat liqueur is procured (usually as a gift) and then set aside until the child’s wedding day. On the day of the wedding, the kumquat liqueur is ceremoniously opened and shared about for a toast to the sweet-bitter future of the newly married couple.
I was lucky enough to find some kumquats at a local supermarket last week. Admittedly, these kumquats were from South Africa and not Corfu, but I resolved to try and re-create the Corfiote kumquat sweet with them anyway. As I could not find any ready recipes for it, I thought I would simply create my own. Keep in mind that the creation of this sweet is a process that takes several days, so patience is the primary ingredient in this recipe.
Ingredients: 1 lb. (approx. 40-45 fruits) of fresh kumquats
4 cups of sugar
1 tbsp. lemon juice
1 tbsp. vanilla extract
1 lb. (approx. 40-45 fruits) of fresh kumquats
- Wash kumquats well and remove the small stalk-ends.
- Using a poultry needle, pierce each fruit through completely, top to bottom (i.e. lengthwise) several times.
- In a saucepan, bring 1 quart (1 litre) of water to a rolling boil then add the kumquats and boil them for 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove the kumquats, add fresh water to the saucepan and once more bring it to a boil then add the kumquats and boil them for another 10 minutes. Then, remove the kumquats and put them in a bowl with cold water. Leave the kumquats to soak in the water for 24 hours and make sure to change the water several times.
- After this soaking, remove the kumquats from the water; spread them out on a flat towel-covered surface (preferably in a sunny spot) and leave to dry for 24 hours. They should pucker slightly when their moisture has sufficiently evaporated.
- For the syrup, add 2 cups of water and the 4 cups of sugar, along with the lemon juice and vanilla extract to a saucepan and stirring it occasionally bring to a rolling boil for several minutes. Add the kumquats and boil them in the syrup for 5 minutes. They will noticeably expand which will serve to suck the syrup into the fruit via the piercings, which will ensure a thorough saturation by the syrup. After the 5 minutes remove the saucepan from the heat and set aside to cool. Leave the kumquats in the syrup to soak overnight.
- After the overnight syrup bath, place the saucepan on a high heat and bring the contents to a rolling boil for 5 minutes, then remove from heat and leave to cool. Using a spoon, skim off any surface bubbles that will form on top of the syrup. Repeat this boiling process (likely 2 more times) until the syrup has reduced to a point where the kumquats are barely covered by the concentrated syrup. Then, leave to half cool and bottle in a glass preserve jar for storage. They should keep for a very long time.
You can use the kumquat sweet as a topping for ice cream, yogurt, or whatever else takes your fancy. Or, you can simply eat it on its own as a spoon sweet chased down with a glass of cold water as the Greeks are wont to do…