Fruits, like stocks and clothes, are ruled by the inscrutable laws of fashion. There's no good reason why mandarin oranges--irresistibly sweet, fragrant and flavorful fruits that dominate citrus production in much of Asia and the Mediterranean basin--should account for only 2% of California's citrus acreage.
After a century in the shadow of navels and Valencias, however, mandarins are suddenly a hot topic for California growers. With one eye on a surge in imported Spanish mandarins called clementines, these farmers are searching to stay competitive by planting the latest large-fruited, easy-peeling, seedless varieties.
A few daring agribusinessmen are swinging for the fences by putting in huge new groves, while smaller growers are rediscovering long-neglected but exquisite older types. It's a new world of experimentation and risk for farmers, and diversity for citrus lovers.
Mandarins are generally smaller and flatter than oranges, with looser rinds and segments and a distinctive spicy aroma. Indigenous to China and northeastern India, they are one of three original species of citrus, along with pummelos and citrons. All other citrus fruits arose from these three as hybrids and mutations; oranges, for example, are crosses between mandarins and pummelos.
Mandarins grow wild in China and have been cultivated there for thousands of years, but they came late to Western citrus culture, reaching Europe in 1805, Florida about 1825 and California by the 1870s.
Some of the first varieties, notably the red-orange Dancy, supposedly came from Tangier in Morocco, so they were nicknamed tangerines. In the United States "mandarin" and "tangerine" now are used more or less interchangeably, but "tangerine" typically refers to flat, deep-colored varieties like the Dancy.
Due to its humid climate, Florida produces large, juicy fruits. It grows some 26,000 acres, but its two main varieties, Fallglo and Sunburst, are bred for appearance and shipping, not eating quality. California's mandarins, grown on just 5,400 acres, have more intense flavor.
Satsumas, currently the state's leading type, have experienced several booms and busts since their introduction from Japan in the late 1870s. First in season, seedless, easy to peel and cold-hardy, they were widely planted in Southern California in the 1880s, in the Sacramento Valley in the early 1900s and in the San Joaquin Valley in the 1950s and 1960s. Each time, either supply exceeded the limited demand or the fruits proved too fragile to pack and ship profitably, and growers removed the trees.
During the last decade, increased interest in specialty citrus has spurred a revival of satsuma cultivation, mostly in the San Joaquin Valley. The best satsumas, however, come from two dozen farms further north, in Placer County and the Sacramento Valley.
Gold Country Strike
In Orland, 100 miles north of Sacramento, Rich Johansen grows 28 acres of organic Owari satsumas. On a freezing morning in mid-November, he ambled through long rows of tall trees gleaming with golden fruit and explained why satsumas flourish in his area.
"The climate up here really puts the fruit through its paces," he said. "Summer days are longer, and satsumas respond to the extended sunlight by growing bigger and sweeter. In the fall, rain and cold kick the acid up. The end result is a complex flavor with a good balance of sweetness and tang."
In a younger section of the grove, half the crop--large, bumpy fruits--lay on the ground. Young trees bear coarse fruit with a "pebbly" rind and blander flavor, says Johansen, so he culls the roughest ones before harvest. It takes 10 years or more, he says, for a mandarin tree to produce its best fruit.
When his father planted satsumas in 1960, hardly anyone knew what they were, and the family lost money on them for many years. But Johansen persevered, traveling door-to-door to hand out free samples. Children loved the seedless, sweet-tart fruit, and their parents started buying. Now giant trucks from national chains pull up to his packing shed, and he can't harvest enough fruit to satisfy the buyers.
Many commercial satsuma growers are less careful than Johansen about quality. Chasing early season high prices, in late September and October, they pick the fruit green, when it's barely legal by state maturity standards, gas it with ethylene and "sweat" it in hot, humid rooms. This brings out orange color in the rind but sometimes off flavors in the flesh.
While satsumas represent the old order, in a few years California's biggest mandarin crop may be clementines. They're not all that new: Father Clement Rodier supposedly discovered his namesake fruit in the garden of an orphanage near Oran, Algeria, around 1900. This "Algerian" mandarin arrived in California in 1914, and from the 1940s to the mid-1960s as many as 1,400 acres of them were grown in the Coachella Valley.