As the days get shorter, wet and cooler, things in the produce world start slowing down — from plant growth rates to harvesting and packing. Increased cloud cover further slows growth and increases mildew worries among row crop producers who are just starting the all-important Thanksgiving harvest. Yet at a time when the sun has all but disappeared, Mother Nature brings it back in the form of citrus. The true 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 but most produce folks agree there is no substitute for fruit that colors naturally on the tree. All you need is a few long cool nights so by December, most citrus is coloring on the trees. The Sun Belt for citrus production stretches from Florida to California, with Louisiana, Texas and Arizona all having large-scale commercial production in areas that do not historically have prolonged periods below freezing. Each growing region has its own characteristics and special varieties. Here are a few examples of some early gems I look forward to: Florida 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 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. Texas At the southernmost tip of Texas around towns like McAllen and Einburg, the growing conditions are uniquely ideal for Grapefruit. The Rio Star with its bright red interior and intense flavor 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. California Because of it size and range of climates, the state of California puts out remarkable citrus. The most common are navel oranges, lemons and grapefruit, but some of the best early entries are smaller and more exotic.
- Satsuma Mandarins: 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 — easy to peel, seedless and 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 (about 6- 8 weeks), so they are not around long enough to take for granted.
- Clementines: Once imported from Spain almost exclusively, the clementine has enjoyed an explosion of production in California. This small, prolific tangerine starts in early November and by December the flavor and color is spectacular.
- Meyer Lemons: 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’s a more fragile piece of fruit, it is only available for the early part of the season (Nov to Feb). I love the Meyer for cooking — the flavor is better and it generally has far more juice than a regular lemon.