Winter Citrus, Peeled
By Dennis Linden
Citrus for the Winter Season
In what seems like a defiant retort to the snows and frigid temperatures that grip much of the country at this time of year, retail produce displays explode with sunny shades of grapefruit yellows, tangerine reds and the blushing pastels of winter citrus varieties. Retailers are beginning to market this bounty of harvest using the rather poetic names that lore or patent holders have given to various varieties of tangerines, oranges and grapefruits that are becoming familiar to the consumer. Still, this inquisitive writer wondered why it is call a “Cara Cara” and from there I found some juicy background stories about some of the delicious varieties featured right now at retailers nationwide. Here are just a few...
The Minneola is a 50:50 cross between a grapefruit and tangerine that was released in 1931 by the United States Department of Agriculture Horticultural Research Station in Orlando, Florida. While the variety was obviously named after another town in Florida, I wondered about the origins of the word. It turns out that “minneola” is a Dakota Indian word meaning "many waters." So what is a word from the Dakotas, where no citrus can grow, doing in Florida? Actually, the tribe was originally a branch of Floridian Seminoles who were an early casualty of the European invasion. Apparently, at the first sight of blue eyes this group lit out from Florida for what is now northern Minnesota. The stay was short as the New Frontier eventually pushed this same group further east into the Dakotas, where tribal descendants remain to this day. In other words, we stole a word from this tribe’s language to name a tangerine that now grows where that tribe used to live until we landed on their shores [out of nowhere from their view] and claimed their neighborhood as our own. Oro Blanco
Finding new strains of fruit that are resistant to disease and are hearty enough to survive the rigors of the distribution pipeline is big business in the produce industry. This kind of research is often times carried out by private university programs; the financial rewards that come with establishing a new variety in the marketplace can be quite lucrative. One of the main centers for citrus research is the University of California at Riverside, located in a prime citrus growing region of the state. Two very prolific agronomists worked there in the 1980s, a Dr. Cameron and Dr. Soost. One of their early successes was this hybrid cross of Pummelo and seedy white grapefruit. If you develop it, you get to name it. The name means “white gold” in Spanish. While the skin of the Oro Blanco is bright green to yellow with a pale yellow fruit, I am thinking the good doctors were thinking about their royalty checks at this christening!
Another fruit developed by those same two diligent Drs. Cameron and Soost. They tweaked the genetic mix of the original acidic Oro Blanco hybrid producing a slightly sweeter flavored fruit, which allowed for a new patent to be registered in 1986. At this naming they came up with “Melo” referring to mellow (low acid) flavor. The “gold” was claimed to be a reference to the deeper color of the rind than an Oro Blanco. This skeptic continues to believe it to be a financial insider’s joke.
A variety that literally escaped from Riverside! That is, there are records from the 1950s describing the crossing of a Siamese Sweet Pummelo with a mandarin at the University. However, the variety was never officially named, patented or released by UC Riverside. Nevertheless, the fruit somehow made it into the public sector and has become a commercial success. The name "Cocktail" is of unknown provenance, but definitely did not originate in Riverside. Technically, one could make a case that every cocktail grapefruit in the marketplace today is, therefore, a bootlegged knockoff! So maybe the name is another inside joke to whoever let this variety free.
Cara Cara Orange
A navel variety of dubious origins that was found in 1976 as a chance sapling growing near an orchard at the Hacienda de Cara Cara in Valencia, Spain. Besides being a navel found in Valencia orange country, the variety’s rosy pink fruit and blushing yellow peel closely resemble that of a small pink grapefruit. That is, until the fruit’s boldly orange flavor with distinct notes of sweet cherry are tasted. Could that cherry be a clue to this fruit’s real parentage? Did a wayward cherry blossom meet up with navel tree; was it botanical love at first sight? Of course, a total myth; still, if fruit trees could talk, oh the tales they might tell us!
Sour oranges have a very ancient history that predates written records. The tree is originally a native of Vietnam and Southeast Asia where parts of the fruit and peel were processed for their medicinal benefits. Through trading and chance plantings, there are now strains of sour oranges throughout the globe used in many different ways depending on the culture cultivating the crop. In South America, the fruit is used as vinegar; in Egypt, it is fermented into wine. In this county and Europe, the oil from the sour orange peel is used in flavoring candy, ice cream, baked goods, gelatins, puddings, chewing gum, soft drinks, liqueurs and pharmaceutical products. Spain has been growing sour oranges since the 12th century; oddly, there is little domestic consumption of what has been a major export crop in the Seville region for centuries. It seems that the farmers of Seville have been profiting since the Middle-Ages on an insatiable affinity for marmalade by the Scots and English consumer. The Seville orange has an unusually high level of pectin that is critical in preserves as well as a unique flavor; it is touted as the special ingredient that gives Scottish jams and marmalades a reputation as being the very best in the world. Scotland imports most all of Seville’s crop. On the other hand, in Seville, the juice of this sour orange can occasionally be found on a menu as a flavoring for fish dishes, but that’s about it. The population prefers the more edible Valencia variety.Jeju Mandarins
Melissa’s was the first to introduce the U.S. consumer to the outstanding quality and rich flavor of this special mandarin variety, grown only on the remote South Korean island of Jeju. Beyond its citrus production, I found some fascinating cultural anomalies connected to this unique place. The island is so isolated that it has its own dialect and culture that differs greatly from the rest of South Korea. One big difference from most all of Asia is that it is a matriarchal society. This came about in the early 1800’s, when the women of the island became the primary bread winners of the society by diving for abalone, conch and other sea life. Apparently popular opinion held that women were much more suited physically than men for deep diving in the seafood-rich but frigid waters surrounding the island. No doubt “popular opinion” being composed entirely of the male population! Still, a life of leisure has its price; with the abdication of the earning power being given up to the ladies, the pants of the family in Jeju society started being tailored in women’s sizes. To this day, while the diving industry has all but disappeared with modern technology and the emergence of a robust agriculture export industry, the balance of social and political power on the island continues to be dominated by women.
My research uncovered enough citrus stories to write two articles, but only if I end this one. Besides, considering this site’s majority gender readership, ending a fact and fiction article about winter citrus with a modern-day island run by women seems like a smart idea. Enjoy the wintry citrus season either out of hand, in a glass, as a marinade or scrumptious sauce to accent meat, fish or fowl.