Like a proud vintner, I have just sampled my first press, or perhaps I should say my first squeeze because we're talking juice here, orange juice, the best you ever tasted, a mixture of Valencia, mandarin and blood oranges.
I had such a concoction -- and my first taste of blood orange -- at a roadside stand alongside Highway 111 on the way to Palm Springs many years ago. I don't know if they brewed it that way on purpose or simply used what they had in the way of fresh citrus, and I'm not even sure what varieties went into their mix other than the distinctive blood orange.
They poured a giant serving -- it was easily as large as a 32-ounce Big Gulp -- and it sure hit the spot. The deep red blood oranges gave it an almost boysenberry color and a slight berry taste, but it still had the tang of citrus. The other citrus in the mix might actually have been sweeter, but the blood oranges added color and complication -- a taste with subtle shadings that are hard to describe.
I've thought about that giant juice through the years. It's funny how some things stick with you.
The blood oranges that made it so memorable and distinctive I would have planted in my own garden long ago, but I kept reading that they don't do well near the coast, where I garden. They seem to pre- fer places like Palm Springs, Riverside or the San Fernando Valley, where it's toasty warm in summer. Commercially, they are grown in Fresno, Kern and Tulare counties.
But one variety held out hope.
'Moro' supposedly did better in cooler climates, and when I stumbled across a very small tree on sale at a nursery a few years back, I thought, "What the heck, I can always cut it down after a few years if it doesn't fruit." So I put the little tree in a sunny spot and watched it grow.
David Silber, the founder of Papaya Tree Nursery, which specializes in exotic fruits, has grown 'Moro' for more than 15 years in his Granada Hills garden because he heard it did better in his valley climate. He has also grown the blood orange named 'Sanguinelli,' but the fruit is smaller and not as colorful.
Silber planted 'Moro' trees that were grafted to the dwarfing Flying Dragon rootstock; I think that's what I planted too, though I lost the plant tag and am no longer sure. He planted three as a hedge, and they have grown to about 7 or 8 feet tall. (Plants listed as semi-dwarf or dwarf, with no mention of a special rootstock, probably aren't, by the way.)
In his soil, Silber found that citrus on this rootstock needs fertilizing every other month; he uses cottonseed meal, which is organic and acidic. My tree doesn't get fed, but our soil is loaded with nutrients. Both of us keep a thick mulch of citrus leaves around the trees, and Silber is convinced this is really important. I've met other accomplished citrus growers who feel the same -- don't let the gardeners blow the leaves out from under citrus trees.
With only the mulch of fallen leaves and regular watering, my tree grew quickly. But after three years there were still no oranges, and my wife and I were beginning to secretly conspire against the tree, whispering things like, "I think we'd better take it out if it doesn't fruit pretty soon," as if it might hear us. I was becoming convinced our Westside garden was simply too cool. Now about 6 feet tall by 5 feet wide, our tree was a lovely, leafy green, but fruitless.
We were again discussing its fate in January when I went to prune off some errant branches and found the first fruit.
Unlike a nearby Valencia or our neighbor's mandarin orange that hangs over our fence -- both of which display their fruit proudly, as if they were Christmas ornaments -- the blood orange had hidden its fruit deep inside the foliage. This is not necessarily a characteristic of the tree, I am told, and it will probably outgrow this habit. I also learned that the variety 'Moro' does take quite a while to fruit, several years longer than a Valencia orange, for instance. 'Moro' typically ripens between February and May near the coast, from December to March further inland, mid-November to February in the low desert.
I was disappointed that the skins of the fruit I found were simply orange with no blush of red, and actually waited until some fell off to make sure they were ripe. The fruit I'd seen so many years before had a reddish blush.
The additional heat in Silber's garden makes his fruit extra sweet, but it turns out it's the cold winter nights that put the blush on the skin. His fruit can be quite red on the outside, and the interiors are deeply colored, almost purple, whereas mine have just streaks of darkness inside. Silver also says his citrus skins smell faintly of vanilla, something I've never noticed. Obviously, blood oranges are ideally suited for warm interior valleys, but we can manage on the coast.
Silber waits until the last minute to pick, usually in late March, so fruits develop maximum sweetness. Mine were quite tasty, though perhaps not as sweet, and they don't seem to have much of that berry taste that I remember from long ago. Another variety named 'Tarocco,' grown in Spain and Italy and in our hotter areas, is apparently the one famous for the rich berry taste.
Since I only had about a dozen fruit on the tree, I quickly learned to get the most mileage out of each blood orange by mixing them with the ripe mandarins hanging over the fence and with the 'Midknight' Valencias in my garden. It's nearly impossible to squeeze a loose-skinned mandarin, but I managed, and the mixture of the three made a memorable juice.
By trying to make the blood oranges go further, I had rediscovered what made that giant juice in Palm Springs so tasty: It's the mix. Just be sure to include a blood orange.