Navel Orchard - Central Valley, California
During the cold, grey days of January it's hard to imagine that anything can come out of the ground or off of a tree. Here on the Northern California coast the berry farms are quiet, the apple trees are bare, even most of the row crop winter vegetable production has migrated to the warmer deserts of the south. Here at the national produce buying office things have settled into something of a winter routine - the summer fruit-fueled buzz is replaced by a low hum as trucks slow down on the icy roads and we all wait for the world to thaw. The only exception is Julie's desk - as January ends our national citrus buyer finishes round one of the winter citrus season and, rolling up her sleeves, busily moves on to round two.
Pixie Mandarins - Harvesting in February
The second part of the winter citrus season brings with it a different kind of anxiety for the industry. Every week brings another cold front and tracking the weather becomes an obsession as grower and seller alike watch and worry that the next weather system will dip down too far or stay in one place too long. Paradoxically, it is that same cool weather (in small measured doses) that will bring out the color and flavor of the citrus varieties that have lingered on the trees.
By the end of January many of the early citrus varieties that filled our fall fruit bowls have vanished for the season. But like peaches in the summer or apples in the fall, many citrus varieties take longer to mature and are available later in the season. The weather risk to harvesting is greater with these late maturing varieties but the reward is equally great as the fruit has the time to develop flavor with remarkable complexity.
The one orange that seems to hang around the whole season is the common Navel. Originating in Brazil in the early 1800's, the navel orange is a seedless variety with a blossom end that closely resembles a human navel. There are actually several commercial varieties of navel, so the orange you buy in the fall is often very different from the fruit that is offered later in the winter. One of the standout varieties of the late season is the Lane, commonly harvested in early February. One interesting characteristic of the navel is each piece of fruit has a twin inside - hidden behind the "navel" of each orange is a second, underdeveloped piece of fruit.
Regular and Cara Cara Navel Oranges
Another late season cultivar of the Navel is the Cara Cara. Discovered in Venezuela in 1976, the Cara Cara has a deeper, almost red interior color and is widely regarded as an improvement on the original. Similar to the Cara Cara is the red navel, and while the Cara Cara is produced mostly in California, red navels are more commonly grown in Florida.
Another orange that makes its debut later in the winter is the Blood Orange. Originally from Sicily, blood oranges can often look like regular oranges on the outside but have an interior color that ranges from a slight red blush to a dark, almost black amber. The most common variety of blood orange produced in the U.S. is the Moro but older European varieties, like the Tarocco and Sanguinelli, are proving to be excellent producers here as well. Blood oranges are generally lower in acidity and can have a hint of a raspberry-like flavor. They are excellent blended with other kinds of citrus or as a standalone juice, and they also make an excellent addition to vanilla ice cream.
Sanguinelli Blood Oranges- Central valley California
The last orange sub-class that undergoes an abrupt variety change in January is the Mandarin. Gone are the beloved zipper skinned Satsuma varieties and replacing them are the short-lived seasons of the Paige, Kira, and Pixie Mandarins. All are excellent but none are around for more than a few short weeks so make sure your don't blink (or you'll miss them).
Pixie's on the tree- Central Valley California
Maybe the most notable change in the citrus world is the gradual departure of the Clementine. But like other citrus types, there are later season varieties that are oftentimes even better. As the ships carrying Spanish fruit become fewer and further in between, and as most of the California cultivars finish, the late season Murcott Mandarin makes its debut and for a few weeks in February it will be the best citrus fruit to eat out of hand.
Juice orange trees - Central Florida
In Florida the Sunburst variety gives way to the Honey Tangerine as the best overall piece of juicing citrus. California also puts up an excellent organic Honey T- my favorite juice blend by far is equal parts Honey tangerines and Sanguinelli blood oranges (if we are fortunate enough to have them come to maturity at the same time). Blending both into a smoothie is real treat.
California Minneola Tangelos
On the fringes of the orange, grapefruit, and tangerine families are the numerous accidental (and deliberate) crossbreeds. Among the most successful are the Minneola and its Florida cousin the Honeybell tangelo. A cross between the Duncan variety grapefruit and Dancy tangerine, the Minneola is best identified by the prominent distention on the stem end of the fruit, which gives it a distinctive teardrop shape. Minneola's have a unique combination of tart/sweetness that comes about as a result of their unusual parentage.
In the winter, as I eat my bowls of greens and rice, looking out the window at my brown garden, and leafless trees, I hope next week's weather system doesn't hang around too long or drop too low - both for my "people" friends to the north and "plant" friends to the south because, like Julie, I too am ready for citrus season, round two.
Many thanks to Adam Morrison for contributing to this post.