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Farmers Markets: A guide to the best winter citrus

January 25, 2013|By David Karp

Midwinter is peak time for citrus to be eaten fresh, and this year quality has been superb, probably because of the extended heat earlier in the growing season. Here are tips about which varieties to look for now and from which growing areas, including recommended growers, tips for choosing and using, and potential pitfalls. For each type there's also a peek at what the future has to offer.

Algerian and some other clementines (from Southern California): At its best, sweet, juicy, rich-flavored, easy to peel and seedless. Drawbacks: Pollinated fruits can be seedy; there is great variation in quality by variety, grower and growing area. San Joaquin Valley clementines will soon be past, but coastal Southern California fruits should still be in prime condition through February; taste first, and be alert to signs of overmaturity (bland, off flavors). Recommended growers: Bob Polito (clearly best); Friend's Ranches, Timber Canyon Ranch.

Future: There are dozens of new clementine varieties in Spain, earlier or later maturing, and larger than the original. It remains to be seen if any will taste as good as Algerian at its best.

Cara Cara navel orange: Pink-fleshed mutation of Washington navel, pigmented with lycopene (like pink grapefruit), with a delightful tutti-frutti flavor. Drawbacks: Color fades by the end of the season, and the flavor of some specimens is bland. Look for a slight pinkish rind blush and medium-sized fruit rather than ultra-large, which can be dry. Eat it peeled or sliced. Growers: Garcia Organic, Ken Lee, Arnett Farms.

Future: There are darker pink navels not yet grown in California, such as Kirkwood Red and California Rojo, as well as a Variegated Cara Cara.

Cocktail "grapefruit" (from Southern California). Is regular grapefruit too tart for you? The so-called Cocktail grapefruit derives low acidity from one parent, Siamese Sweet acidless pummelo, and sweet, tender flesh from the other, Frua mandarin. It's bright golden yellow, very juicy and rather soft for shipping, but it's a great favorite at farmers markets. Drawbacks: It's excessively seedy, with bitter membranes. Large fruits are best for eating fresh, because it's easier to cut away the membranes. Small fruits are fine for juicing and eating sliced. Growers: Garcia Organic Farm, Peter Schaner, Thys Ranch, Rancho Padre (juice).

Future: Breeders are trying to develop a version with fewer seeds, which would be a game changer.

Daisy mandarin: The cross of Fortune and Fremont is very sweet, with rich, complex flavor. It vies with Dekopon for top rating. Smooth, very attractive red-orange skin. Drawbacks: A bit "chippy" to peel and excessively seedy. Choose flat fruits, and beware sunburned fruits late in season. Eat by cutting into longitudinal slices. Growers: Rancho Mexico Lindo (best quality, ripe in a few weeks), Mud Creek Ranch, Arnett Farms.

Future: Fruits of a low-seeded version, DaisySL, will be available in a few years from Friend's Ranches and JJ's Lone Daughter Ranch. It has a firm texture but melts in the mouth, and it should be the supreme farmers market citrus when more growers catch on.

Dancy mandarin. The original Florida zipper-skin tangerine is a classic in California too, with intense wild mandarin aroma. It's bright red, with a flat shape and thin, edible skin. Great for cooking. Drawbacks: seedy, lots of rag (high ratio of membrane to juicy pulp) and perishable. Choose fruits heavy in hand and use quickly. It adds spice to orange juice. Growers: Friend's Ranches, JJ's Lone Daughter Ranch, Timber Canyon Ranch.

Future: A seedless cross of Dancy and Robinson, with the excellent flavor of Dancy and few of the drawbacks, is now being planted by a large grower in Florida. It may help jump-start that state's moribund mandarin industry, which has been beaten badly by California in the past decade.

Dekopon mandarin hybrid (sold as Sumo, from the San Joaquin Valley). Large, with a neck, pebbly golden rind, easily peeled, seedless, high in sweetness and acidity, intense mandarin flavor — as good as citrus gets. Drawbacks: Rough rind may put some off, not every fruit lives up to the variety's potential and it's pricey. Choose smoother fruits, and them eat peeled or sectioned. Dried Sumos can be sublime. Grower: Mike and Jonelle George, at Santa Monica Wednesday starting Feb. 6 or soon thereafter.

Future: Currently just one group of farmers grows Dekopon in California, but trees will be more widely available in several years and will fruit in about six.

Meiwa kumquat (from Southern California): Round and sweet, with thicker skin, and much sweeter than the standard oval Nagami; the best kumquat for eating fresh. Drawbacks: Seedy, less productive and not as easy to grow as Nagami and more perishable. Look for fully colored orange fruits. Growers: Garcia Organic, Coyote Growers (Jim and Jeanne Davis), Mud Creek Ranch.

Future: There are seedless forms of Meiwa in Asia, which hopefully will be grown in California some day.

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