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IN SEASON

My Darling Clementine

February 01, 1996|RUSS PARSONS

Look in the produce section of almost any grocery store and you'll quickly find that there's more to citrus than you might have thought.

Spurred by curious consumers, even major produce companies are broadening their horizons, focusing on what were once little-known varieties.

Depending on the market, you can find anything from Meyer lemons to oro blanco grapefruits, as well as varieties of tangerines, tangelos, tangors and clementines. Slice open an orange and you may find that the meat is bloody purple.

"Things have really taken off for us," says Mark Johnson, varietal manager for Sunkist Growers' "Seasonal Specialties" line. Sunkist's biggest mover is the Morro blood orange. "We're doubling sales every year. Three years ago we were shipping 15,000 cases, and we're above 100,000 cases this year."

Much of the interest can be traced to farmers markets, where growers and shoppers make direct connections.

"We started [growing specialty citrus] because of the farmers markets," says Rose Polito, of Valley Center's Polito Farms, a longtime favorite at Wednesday's Santa Monica, Thursday's Westwood and Friday's Venice markets.

"Once we got into the markets, we started asking our customers what they wanted, then we proceeded to provide it."

Right now, the Politos are selling Satsumas, clementines, blood oranges and Valencia oranges as well as Meyer lemons and oro blanco grapefruits. They're also experimenting with a new mandarin variety called Pixie-Like, which may be ready next year.

Sorting out exactly what is what can be difficult. The citrus family tree is a tangled one--especially where oranges and their relatives are concerned.

First, there are the two major American orange families--Valencia (seeded and juicy) and navel (seedless and firm). Navel is the major orange in California and Valencias are thought of as Florida oranges, though many are grown in California. There are also blood oranges and sour oranges.

Then there are the mandarin oranges--the family name for citrus fruits that are easy to peel. Members include tangerines (including clementines, Fairchilds, Dancys and Satsumas) and their crosses--tangors (tangerine-orange--notably the temple) and tangelos (tangerine with pomelo--mainly Minneolas and Orlandos).

There is also a true mandarin orange that has a green rind and orange flesh. It is known for its distinctive tangy flavor, but almost the whole crop goes to canning.

Then there's the newly popular mandarin variety called Murcott, which is very sweet and very seedy with a bronze-speckled rind. It is commonly sold as a honey tangerine, though technically it is a tangor.

It's a complicated, juicy story.

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