I always look forward to the first cool evenings of the fall. It signals the time at home where we pull the extra blankets out of the closet, and add soups and stews to our dinner menus. Cool evenings also mean the oranges, lemons, tangerines and grapefruits that have been growing all summer are coloring on the trees and the early varieties are arriving at stores and farmers' markets.
As with many commercial fruits the range of citrus offerings we enjoy regularly today has increased dramatically. In my lifetime, perhaps the biggest changes have come in the tangerine sub-class.
What was once a small, short, inconsistent crop has grown in size and significance - thanks in large part to the country of Spain. The Clementine is a small, easy to peel Mandarin that is extremely popular on the east coast. So much so that production in the U.S. has increased exponentially as growers find domestic growing areas with conditions favorable to this fruit. Many of the same growers who produced Navel oranges for years are finding that growing Clementines provide earlier income in the fall, in addition to a better eating experience for their customers.
Another early favorite is the Satsuma Mandarin - a cousin to the Clementine that has long been a west coast favorite. I always look forward to Satsumas as the variety that tells me the domestic citrus season has truly started. The fruit is sweet, juicy and perhaps the easiest piece of citrus to peel. Satsumas have been grown in the U.S. for years (mainly in California) but have also seen a surge in popularity as more people throughout the country get access to this delicious fruit.
Grapefruits are another variety of citrus that have undergone a remarkable transformation over the years. The new standard is a deep (ruby) red, sweet, less astringent version than what I grew up with. Grapefruits are grown all over the U.S. but the late fall fruit grown in
the southernmost tip of Texas and throughout the state of Florida is some of the best of the season. Maybe what makes it great is the almost total absence of comparable fruit in the summer. There's just something indescribable about those first few arrivals of the winter grapefruit season.
The thing that all this early season fruit has in common is flavor. I find it encouraging that there seems to be a resurgence in the search for and increased production of varieties that deliver great flavor.
This is also true of the later season citrus we enjoy as the short Clementine/Satsuma one ends and later harvest varieties come off the trees. Citrus changes lately have been uniformly good - I hope this trend continues. What's your favorite early season citrus and how do you enjoy it?