Early Winter Citrus
The leaves have fallen- the days are shorter and we spend less and less time outdoors. Fall is finishing, winter is just around the corner or has already arrived. It seems every trip I take on a plane, I bring back some new Rhino-bug (the same is true almost daily with my son Aidan and his Kindergarten gang of plague carriers). Just when we need it the most, Mother Nature brings us the sun in a neat little package.
December brings a shift in the focus in produce to citrus. During the summer we see fruit from all over the world and while imports into the U.S. continue well into the winter, late November marks the peak of the long domestic citrus season. Just in time too — consumption of fresh citrus in the winter is four times what it is in the summer.
Warm season / cool nights
The trigger for the start of the citrus season is cool evenings. After growing all summer long, most citrus needs a string of cool nights to bring out the color and flavor. Color can be brought out artificially and if the season starts out like this one (record warm temperatures) much of the new crop domestic citrus we see before Thanksgiving is conditioned (with ethylene, like bananas) to force its natural color to come out or has color “added” (eek!). All you need is a few long cool nights though, so by December most citrus is coloring on the trees.
Fruit from coast to coast
The Sun Belt for citrus production stretches from Florida to California, with Louisiana, Texas, and Arizona all having large scale commercial production. Citrus trees are notoriously temperature sensitive though, so orchards are planned in areas in the U.S. that do not historically have prolonged periods below freezing. Each growing region has its own characteristics and special varieties – here are some examples of some early gems I look forward to:
: Oranges are what the sunshine state is best known for but Florida also puts out exceptional tangerines for juicing and eating out of hand. The best early variety is the Sunburst Tangerine – it’s loaded with seeds but also with flavor. The juice of the Sunburst is excellent alone or blended with grapefruits or oranges. The amazing thing about the Sunburst (and the Honey variety, which follows later in the season) is the amount of juice they produce relative to their size — two or three small ones will produce a glass.
Florida also produces outstanding Grapefruit — perhaps the best known is fruit grown in the coastal county of Indian River. Coveted by grapefruit growers for its soil and optimal growing conditions, Indian River is also home to the some of the best eating Honeybell Tangelos, a close cousin to the western Minneola.
: At the southernmost tip of Texas around towns like McAllen and Einburg, the growing conditions are uniquely ideal for Grapefruit. The Rio Star, with it’s bright red interior, is an intensely flavorful grapefruit variety that is available from late November well into the new year. It’s not the only variety produced in the area (nor is it the only kind of citrus produced in Texas) but it is widely viewed as the best. For juicing the Rio Star is the stand alone grapefruit.
Among the growers in the area are veterans of organic agriculture Dennis and Lynda Holbrook (South Texas Organics LC). For nearly 25 years Dennis has been working to perfect organic citrus production in Texas and has succeeded in producing some of the best tasting fruit grown anywhere. When I lived in Texas I would look forward to seeing his plain brown box every season. Now his fruit is sold all over the U.S. and Canada.
: Before we move out west it would be wrong not to mention the one import item east coast Americans look forward to every year. Late November brings the first arrivals of Spanish Clementines to the U.S. The first few weeks are of the early Marisol variety but by December the main Clemenule has arrived and the small, sweet, easy to peel fruits in five pound boxes become a basic staple in many households. California has also taken the Spanish lead and is now producing comperable fruit for the western U.S.
: Because of it size and range of climates the state of California puts out remarkable fruit for fresh consumption. The most common are Navel Oranges, Lemons, and Grapefruit, but some of the best early entries run into the more exotic:
: Unlike the more common Lisbon or Eureka varieties, the Meyer Lemon is extremely thin skinned. It is also full of juice and flavor and the thin skin is excellent for Zest. Because it is a more fragile piece of fruit it is only available for the early part of the season (Nov- Feb). I love the Meyer for cooking — the flavor is better and it generally has far more juice than a regular lemon.
: The umbrella name for a group of mandarin varieties, the Satsuma is the one variety I eagerly wait for every year. It has all the things I love about citrus and none of the things I hate — it’s easy to peel, seedless, it’s not too big (good for kids), and if you buy the stem and leaf version (which I do) it has to be ripened on the tree (ethylene or heat treatment kills the leaves). The Satsuma also has the best flavor of any piece of citrus. I like everything in citrus but the Satsuma is the one I love. The season is very short too (about 6- 8 weeks) so they are not around long enough to take for granted.
There is lots more to talk about with citrus but it’s a long season – in fact we never stop harvesting citrus in the U.S. (we just have less to pick in the summer when most of it is growing). I always thought it poetic that when we need the energy, nutrition, and immunity boosting power of citrus the most, the most is available (thanks Mother Nature).
So come and get me Rhino-whatiz. Take your best shot, you pack of share-everything’s. I have my little package of sunshine so I’ll be okay.