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April, 2010

Pixie Tangerines

By Dennis Linden

April showers the retail displays with one of the most flavorful specialty citrus varieties available in the marketplace all year
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Pixie Tangerines
For a few short months, February through May, Pixie Tangerines from California’s Ojai Valley are peaking in supply and flavor. While the name of this very special fruit refers to its tiny size, there is absolutely nothing small about the taste of this tangerine. Admittedly, that last sentence does sound like a glib advertising agency marketing line, but this writer has seen firsthand how this little fruit can generate classic double-takes from produce professionals who are not expecting the distinctive burst of citrus essence that one small segment of this fruit contains.

A few years ago, I was tending a Melissa’s exhibit booth at a trade show attended exclusively by retail produce buyers and managers. The attendees of these shows often munch their way through an array of tasty fruits and veggies being offered at almost every exhibit. It became comically predictable to watch the same reaction acted out by each person who tried our Pixies. These unsuspecting grazers would take a toothpicked tangerine segment and begin to move on for no more than two or three steps before stopping in mid-stride with an incredulous “WOW!” and a simultaneous 180° pivot to come back for a second helping. In fact, this same scene became great entertainment for the bored vendors manning the booths on either side and across the aisle from the Melissa’s exhibit, as no one was getting this kind of reaction from their sample trays. Again, this was a very tough audience of seasoned produce buyers to impress who had, or rather, thought they had tasted it all.

The Pixie tangerine has an amazingly rich sweetness without the tart tang of most tangerine varieties. The fruit retains its flavor and quality for a remarkably long time if stored in the home refrigerator. Pixie tangerines have a deep orange yellow skin that can be either smooth or slightly pebbly in texture, and a bright orange interior fruit that is always seedless. While individual Pixie tangerines vary in shape, size and texture, they are never more than two to three inches in diameter, with segments that separate easily from one another. The variety was first released in the 1960s as a “backyard tree” and considered to have little commercial value due to the many technical hurdles of growing this fruit on a large scale. Since Pixies ripen in late winter, the fruit hangs on the trees during California's coldest months, which makes them quite susceptible to frost. The trees are alternate bearing, meaning that they produce heavy volume only every other year. It also takes four years for a tree to produce enough fruit to be of any commercial value, and the variety really does not reach peak production for eight years. However, the unique soil and microclimate of the Ojai Valley seems to be where this fruit flourishes most successfully. In 1979 there were just two Pixie trees in all of Ojai; today, some forty small family farms pool their harvests for marketing purposes from more than 27,000 trees.

Melissa’s has enjoyed a long history of working closely with the growers in the Ojai Valley since the early days of commercial production. The relationship has grown into a marketing partnership seldom shared between grower and wholesaler. The arrival of the Pixie crop each season is always a very special event at Melissa’s. Once you have experienced the Pixie tangerine’s unusual taste, this time of the year will no doubt become special for you too.