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January, 2012

Citrus: Winter's Gift

By Dennis Linden

Citrus is one of the few fresh-harvested domestic fruit crops available in abundance at this time of the year.

Melissa's Citrus VarietyWhat July is to summer soft fruits, namely the peak month of supply and quality, January is to a dazzling array of citrus varieties. In fact, citrus is one of the few fresh-harvested domestic fruit crops available in abundance at this time of the year. The U.S. consumer does enjoy summer fruit varieties during the winter months, but those crops are imported from the southern hemisphere and other tropical climates. “Fresh Picked” apple promotions and displays do dominate the square footage of most retail produce departments in January; however, all apples were harvested late September and October, then put into deep storage under gas to extend shelf-life. Only in the citrus section can one find a steady profusion of truly new-crop fruit. Varieties like MeloGold Grapefruit, Satsuma Mandarin and Buddha’s Hand kick off the season with the first fall leaves of October. The volume builds and the number of varieties increase each month, hitting a peak of selection in January, which offers the widest range of flavors from sweet to tart, subtle to pronounced, packaged in natural units the size of a marble to that of the giant Pummelo that can weigh two pounds each!

Admittedly, when I lived in California, this seasonal parade of citrus varietals was never noticed. I took these fruits for granted in an environment where citrus trees and bushes are an integral part of most backyard landscapes and a glass of fresh-squeezed OJ in the morning involves a quick trip outside to pick the main ingredient, still in one’s PJ’s! To those of you reading this feature while eyeing those lemons, grapefruits and/or oranges hanging just outside your own window, may I suggest a trip to your local market for a change of pace with a variety of new taste treats just waiting to be peeled!

Pixie TangerinesWhile most of the sweetness of this year’s Clementine crop is finished, take heart, as the widest varietal selection is happening right now! This month there is a world of flavorful mandarin varieties to discover and once the rich flavor of Blood Orange juice is experienced, that backyard Valencia tree will quickly become a true landscape ornamental. I defy even the most nonchalant native Californian not to do a double-double take at the absolute unique flavor of the upcoming crop of Pixie Tangerines. It is simply delicious beyond words.

We who do not live in California, Florida or Arizona need no such urging. It wasn’t until I left the Golden State for the Pacific Northwest, a prolific agricultural region with the exception of any kind of citrus, that I began to enjoy the exciting choices the retail citrus section offers the palate, as well as the spirit, in the middle of winter. In fact, there is something uplifting about coming into a store, from a cold rain or snow-covered streets and parking lot, only to be greeted by a brilliantly colored display of tangerines piled high, each adorned with an even brighter green stem and two-leaf hat! The same goes for a circus-like stack of miniature boxes containing equally miniature Satsuma Mandarin. This may sound silly to those readers who live in a perpetual sun belt, but a display of tangerines has been known to cause more than one smile on a frigid winter’s day! Even the word tangerine has a playfulness about it that can evoke at least a mental smile from those shoppers hesitant to risk a more public display of sunshine cheer – you know who you are, snow belt comrades! For us in regions of the country that get a real winter, a Minneola Tangelo or Meyer Lemon might represent the only natural sunlight of the day!

KumquatsOf course I jest, but the point is that January is a wonderful time to walk the citrus aisle of your local market, regardless of zip code, and partake in the bounty of the season. Whether you are looking for a pop-in-the-mouth hand fruit like the kumquat or the balanced sweetness of the Cara Cara Orange for a recipe ingredient, optimum quality and flavors are here now. Besides, the world might be a little better off if we all stopped to smile at a tangerine every once in a while! Happy peeling!