NOT so long ago, we called them tangerines, they came from Florida and when we thought of them at all -- which wasn't very often -- it was mainly because they were so easy to peel. Certainly it wasn't for their flavor, which was pretty uniformly undistinguished.
Not anymore. Walk through a Southern California farmers market this winter and it almost seems there are more locally grown tangerines -- properly called mandarins -- than there are navel oranges.
Sold under their variety names, Satsumas, Clementines, Pixies and at least half a dozen others, they come in a kaleidoscope of shapes, sizes and colors. And the flavor is mouth-filling, explosively sweet and tart at the same time, with individual varieties ringing notes that range from flowery to almost winy.
This is just the beginning. California is in the midst of a gold rush, as a crop that only a few years ago represented less than 5% of the state's citrus harvest becomes one of the big four -- trailing only navel and Valencia oranges and lemons.
Although they're a relatively new addition to the California scene, mandarins (Citrus reticulata) are hardly newcomers to the world of citrus. In fact, they are among the three original families, along with pummelos and citrons. Every other kind of citrus fruit -- oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit and all the rest -- are hybrids resulting from cross-breeding among these three groups.
The popular name tangerine is a commercial invention that was attached in the mid-19th century because the first mandarins imported into the U.S. were shipped from the Moroccan seaport of Tangiers. So unfamiliar were these fruits that they were sometimes sold under the name "mandarin orange," a usage that today continues mainly in the canned version.
To make it even more confusing, some of the fruits we consider mandarins are actually hybrids -- crosses between mandarins and other citrus, sometimes quite complex. There is, in fact, a mandarin-orange cross called the tangor.
Generally speaking, mandarins are easy to peel, and easy to separate into segments. Beyond these characteristics, the family is highly varied. Botanists divide mandarins into as many as 35 types, according to things such as point of origin, leaf shape and color.
For cooks, it's simpler just to split the family according to when the varieties ripen. Early mandarins, primarily Satsumas, come into the market around Thanksgiving and last through mid-February. Middle-season mandarins -- Clementines and others -- begin with the new year and last through early March. Late mandarins -- Gold Nugget, Pixies and others -- are harvested from midFebruary into the summer months.
Bounty of fruit
THE state's tangerine acreage has more than doubled in the last five years; as more and more trees mature in the next couple of winters, brace yourself for a flood of fruit.
According to the most recent California Citrus Acreage Report, of the roughly 18,000 acres of mandarins in the state, more than half have been planted since 1999, most of them in the San Joaquin Valley. Two large growers, Sun Pacific and Paramount Citrus, have each planted roughly 3,000 acres of Clementines in the Central Valley.
This success has left Southern California's tangerine pioneers, a loose association of small growers in Ojai, seeming somewhat proud, slightly dazed and more than a little worried. They're happy this fruit they've loved so well is finally getting the attention it is due, but they worry whether large-scale production can still result in good quality fruit.
And more to the point for them, how can a tiny band of small producers in Ojai compete with corporate giants?
"They're big and they can be much more efficient than we can be," says Tony Thacher of Friend's Ranches, which has been farming citrus in the Ojai Valley since the 1880s. "They're also going to be earlier to market, no matter what. So we just have to try to do something special."
That something special is stealing a trick from the wine industry and promoting an appellation-grown fruit, the Ojai Pixie Tangerine, which will be hitting the markets in about a month. Pixies are small and seedless and when grown in the right places, incredibly sweet.
Originally a dooryard fruit eaten mainly at home, Pixies were first sold only through farmers markets and at a few restaurants such as Chez Panisse in Berkeley. But these little mandarins are so irresistible that they are now sold across the country. Where there were once only a scattering of trees, there are more than 26,000 in the Ojai Valley.
Why are mandarins so hot all of a sudden? Credit the Clementine. In the 1990s, growers from Spain, the largest exporters of fresh citrus in the world, started flooding the American market with them. From 1996 to 2000, Spain's shipments of Clementines to the United States increased five-fold, to more than 200 million pounds per year.