Sometimes it pays to take time out focus on just one thing at the farmers’ market. With all the variety and choices on the farmers’ tables each week, it’s easy to overlook a particular item that is at its absolute peak of flavor. I have in the past gone for weeks without buying oranges or strawberries, two fruits whose flavor is so familiar and rewarding that they can survive in memory – only to surprise me when I taste them again. This week I visited two organic citrus farms in San Diego County that are planted on the steep, rocky terrain that is common in that part of the world. The citrus trees are loaded with fruit this year, both because many citrus varieties are alternate bearing and this is their “on” year, and because the dry weather has allowed them to hang on the trees longer. The longer the fruit is allowed to hang on the tree, the more sugar and flavor it develops, and the fruit in these orchards was bursting with flavor. I saw Satsuma mandarin trees still drooping with ripe fruit, even after the only significant rain of the season had caused many of them to drop to the ground. Satsumas are the first of the tangerine family to come to market beginning in December, and they are usually finished off by rain or cold weather by now. But Satsumas are just the beginning of a glorious tangerine season that one farmer, Armando Garcia from Fallbrook, says he can make last all year.Armando and his family farm about fifty acres of mixed citrus and avocados and they are responsible for introducing farmers’ market customers to the “cocktail” grapefruit and the pink Cara Cara navel orange. The cocktail grapefruit is a seedy, incredibly tasty cross between a tangerine and a white grapefruit. The seeds, which are easily avoided because they are concentrated right in the center of the fruit, do nothing to diminish the pleasure of devouring one or more of these delectable specimens. Like the Cara Cara, the cocktail grapefruit is almost big enough to be eaten with a spoon, and it has become a highly anticipated seasonal favorite at the Garcia’s stand. Satsuma mandarins are still holding down the tangerine spot on the Garcia’s table, but only until the last good ones can be harvested. After that, a flood of new varieties will come to market, including the sweet Page, the Honey, and a thicker skinned version of the famous Pixie from Ojai that comes out of San Diego orchards months after the northern ones are finished. In addition, the Garcias are experimenting with several new tangerine varieties – all with the goal of having at least some tangerines at their stand throughout the year. California citrus growers have faced years of hardship in selling their staple orange crops of winter navels and summer Valencias. Falling prices and foreign competition have rendered most oranges something less than a break-even enterprise, so growers have had to concentrate on special varieties that can be marketed for flavor and pure eating enjoyment. Hence the arrival of so many interesting new tangerine varieties. When you pass by a farm stand at the market you should be sure to check out all the citrus fruit that is being sampled. There are almost certain to be some new ones to taste.Just down the road from the Garcia farm is the California Organic Fruit ranch, which is brimming with ripe, sweet tangelos and blood oranges. These two fruits are tangy and unpredictable, but this year they are the sweetest I have ever tasted, without losing the depth of flavor that makes them so distinguished among citrus fruit. The tangelo is noticeable for its distinctive bump on the stem end and its bright orange color. It is extremely juicy and as easy to peel as a tangerine although it also makes a wonderful juice. In fact COF’s ranch manager Gaston is trying to figure out how to juice them so he can attempt to harvest more of them. On-farm food processing requires an expensive investment in structures and equipment, so the trick now is to get customers to taste the tangelos and take home a bag or two. The red-fleshed blood orange is equally delicious, and combined with the tangelos they make a beautiful bright red juice. At times like this when the harvest is so abundant, it would be nice if there was a commodity program that could purchase the surplus fruit and make it available to the normal institutions that the government subsidizes with free food such as the schools. Short of that big plan, it is up to the farmers to get their customers to stop by and have a taste of this year’s exceptional citrus crop. Abundance and outstanding flavor are what every farmer dreams of, after all.
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