Native to Japan and introduced to Europe during the 17th Century, the loquat is ubiquitous in Spain. Traditionally found in back gardens and along roadsides, this sweet, juicy fruit, known locally as the níspero, is one of the most familiar fruits to Mediterranean and Asian consumers but it remains relatively unknown in northern Europe. Eager to spread the joy, Spanish grower-supplier Cascriva is on a mission to launch the loquat onto the UK retail scene. PBUK speaks with Cascriva director José Castello to get the story.
At a time when consumers are actively trying new products and retailers remain eager to differentiate, the loquat fits neatly into the UK marketplace thanks to its various unique selling points.
So says Castello, who speaks to PBUK from Cascriva’s import office at New Spitalfields Market in London, which was set up in 2014 to introduce the loquat to the UK.
“Firstly, the loquat is the first stonefruit on the market in early spring,” he explains. “In April, when every customer is waiting for the new season to start and there’s nothing available, this is the first fruit with good taste and quite a bit of juice.”
Secondly, as UK consumers continue to seek new experiences, Castello believes the loquat gives retailers the chance to offer something different, and to be spoken about.
“We want to bring another cultural tradition of Spain to the UK,” he says. “The loquat is not familiar among English consumers, although there are many foreigners living in the UK who have good knowledge of loquats – such as Asian, Spanish, Italian, Greek and Turkish people who have all grown up eating this fruit from the trees that grow in our homelands.”
Cascriva’s loquat offer has a further point of difference. The company is the sole producer of the Protected Denomination of Origin (PDO)-certified Algar loquat – a variety that is only grown in a valley that lies nestled between the mountains and the sea high above Callosa d’en Sarrià in Alicante, Spain.
“Other Mediterranean countries have tried growing loquats [commercially], but it’s only been successful in this valley because of the unique weather conditions,” Castello claims. “There is massive competition for this fruit, and having PDO-recognised production is one of the things that opens doors for us.”
Accounting for nearly 70-75 per cent of Spain’s commercial loquat production, Cascriva also claims to be the only season-long supplier of Spanish loquat. Furthermore, the company takes an artisanal approach to growing loquats, meaning no machinery is used to grow, harvest or pack the fruit.
“Families in Spain have grown loquats for generations, but [commercial] production is difficult because the fruit is very delicate – the skin is so thin,” Castello explains. “Everything has to be done by hand, which makes our loquat a very unique offer.”
Because of this, Castello describes Cascriva’s loquats as being delivered almost “from the tree to the customer.”
“At the harvesting stage, we are already packing the fruit into cartons to put straight on the delivery trucks,” he points out. “We even had to create specific health and safety certificates and training for our workers because you can’t afford for too many hands to touch the fruit or it will spoil.”
In establishing commercial production and focusing on creating demand, Cascriva is endeavouring to keep this special fruit “alive” – and its traditional growers in business, according to Castello.
Having successfully developed a retail presence in Germany, and after expanding sales across the UK wholesale market, next Cascriva is looking to partner with UK retail buyers.
“Our loquats are sold via most wholesale markets in the UK,” Castello says. “Now, we want to introduce the fruit at a retail level to raise consumer awareness further. We just need to make the right contacts with the right people who understand what we’re trying to achieve.”
Since setting up an import arm in the UK almost four years ago, Cascriva has developed into the country’s main distributor of loquats. Those running the Valencia-based grower-supplier, however, have fruit and vegetable production in their blood that dates back decades.
Castello is the fourth generation of produce growers in his family. His great-grandfather grew grapes in Alicante, and over the years citrus was added to the mix, while the other side of his family grew onions.
“We are the new generation of young people who are hungry to create something new,” Castello explains. “We came to the UK to learn about what the customer needs. This is our third year of trading in the UK, and we’ve had good success on the wholesale market.”
Starting from the bottom up, Castello says Cascriva has increased its UK wholesale market sales from zero to 200 per cent quite quickly. “Now we’re supplying nearly 200 tonnes a season, and we’re growing by 10-20 per cent every year,” he notes.
Learnings from Germany
Following on from progress made in Germany – Cascriva now supplies almost 500 tonnes of loquats seasonally to the main national retailers – Castello is eager to translate that experience into success on the UK retail market.
“The market has exploded in Germany,” he exclaims, adding that 2018 is only the second year of trading and already more volume is demanded. “We have learnt what is the best packaging, labelling and information to provide to the final supermarket customer. We’re now experimenting with social media and recipes.”
In particular, Castello points out that consumer education has been necessary regarding the little dark spots that appear on the skin of the loquat, which indicate where the sun has hit the thin layer of skin, and the natural sugars inside of the fruit have begun to caramelise.
“We call them freckles,” he says. “The loquats with the most freckles are the sweetest. That means in the UK, where consumers want produce with as few imperfections as possible, they would be making a mistake when it comes to loquats.
“This is something we will need to explain to UK consumers, alongside information about how and where the Spanish PDO loquat is grown. Ideally, we’d like to do some tastings too.”
Characteristics of loquats
Available from April to June, the loquat is a soft, oval- or round-shaped fruit that is yellow-orange in colour. Its flavour combines the sweetness of a peach with the tartness of a lemon. Sizes vary, with the average loquat being similar in diameter to a plum.
“It’s a fresh and juicy fruit with a lot of flavours in one bite,” adds Castello. “The taste is quite sweet with a citrusy flavour, but I can’t compare the flavour with another fruit because it’s just special. The fruit itself is so soft when you bite it – the skin and flesh is smooth and nice to eat.”
The loquat is also a versatile fruit. Excluding the brown seeds, the whole fruit can be eaten either raw, juiced or cooked, and pairs particularly well with yoghurt for breakfast, or as an ingredient in smoothies or pastries.
“There are various ways to eat loquat, and we’ve done some research into the types of ingredients they match well with,” points out Castello. “Like berries, loquat is perfect with yoghurt so it’s great for breakfast, and it’s super juicy if you want to juice it or add it to smoothies.”
On the health front, the loquat ticks another box. Featuring vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and flavonoids, the fruit is low in saturated fat and sodium, and high in vitamin A, dietary fibre, potassium and manganese.
Although loquat trees occur naturally throughout Spain, the commercial crop is grown mainly in Alicante. There, Cascriva manages a group of small-scale growers operating across 1,100ha of PDO-certified production in the valley above Callosa d’en Sarrià.
“PDO Algar loquats from Spain can only be found in the Callosa valley in Alicante, and Cascriva is the only company to grow PDO loquat here,” Castello states. “It’s one of the sunniest parts of Europe but being next to the sea means when it’s cold it’s not that cold, and when it’s hot it’s not too hot. Plus the mountains provide protection from the wind.”
The Algar variety accounts for 95 per centof Cascriva’s current loquat production. But that could change in the future as the company investigates other varieties with specific characteristics.
“Through our research lab, we’re looking at developing new varieties that will allow us to make the season longer and to grow more tasty loquats with better sizes and longer shelf-life,” Castello reveals. “There are three varieties, which I think are promising.”
To spread the word among buyers and beyond, Cascriva is exhibiting for the first time at The London Produce Show 2018 on 6-8 June at the Grosvenor House hotel.
Castello says his UK team will be on hand to explain what makes the loquat special and to demonstrate the fruit’s unique characteristics, in addition to examples of its packaging, grower information and recipes.
“Loquat is something buyers need to feel and taste,” he states. “Come to our stand to understand our project and to taste this special fruit.”
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