Tuesday, January 19, 2010
At 8:30 Monday morning, I ventured out in the rain and across Altadena to my friendly acquaintance Martin's house to learn about his collection of mandarins. He had volunteered to share fruit and information with me about what he was growing, and there is no one I've ever met who is as excited and informed about mandarins as he is. Rain or no rain, I couldn't turn the opportunity down. Though he has quite a few more in his collection, four were ripe and ready to taste today.
Four Mandarins Side by Side
1) Dancy Mandarin
This fruit's a beaut. It is a dark, true orange color with fine pores in its thin skin. Martin held the fruit up to me and said, "Smell its skin." Oh baby, it smells wonderful, exactly what one thinks of when one hears the word tangerine. It is a little harder to peel than others, and there is almost no white pith in the skin. Medium sweet with a nice acid balance, it is not complicated flavored, but clean. The segments are easy to separate with individual cells that cling tightly together. The tree from which this fruit came was small, so it was hard for me to determine what it will look like as it matures.
2) Owari Satsuma
This is the type of mandarin that I have in my yard, planted upon Martin's recommendation last year. He has two mature trees of this variety, and they have a distinct, almost weeping growing habit with wide, very dark green leaves. It is the prettiest plant of his mandarin collection. The fruit is mid-orange with a gold tinge, marked by large pores, and a loose, easy-to-peel character. Since the skin is so loose on this variety, it is a poor keeper; on a wet day, moisture can enter the fruit and immediately set rot in motion. The loose skin is what makes the season on Owaris so short. The peel on this variety is sharply scented, but not as complex in scent as the Dancy. Its flesh, however, is superior. It is melting and remarkably sweet, but balanced perfectly with an acidic bite. Of the fruit I tasted today, this is my favorite.
A Dancy on the left and an Owari on the right—notice how much thicker and easier to peel the skin is on the Owari.
Martin tells me that this is a Russian mandarin and that it is the most cold-hardy of his collection. "It can take a hard frost and not slow down," he said. He purchased the tree from the University of California, Riverside's test orchard, and he knows of only two other people who grow it. This fruit is light orange with a peel that smells similar to Owari. The fruit is similar in texture and sweetness to Owari, but it is less acid and has a floral aftertaste. Unlike its peers, it is substantially more sweet than tart. Its skin was loose, but not as loose as Owari's. Rounded and spreading, the tree had a more typical citrus growth habit than drooping Owari.
4) Gold Nugget
Gold Nugget, a UCR introduction, is just not as pretty as its peers: the color is less rich, and though larger, it has a bumpy, irregular surface. However, the thick peel, when torn, has an aromatic intensity to it, and the flesh itself is lovely. The segments are larger and firmer than today's other fruit. Martin told me that they weren't quite ripe yet, but he wanted me to taste them anyway, so I can see what they'll be like. They're already quite sweet and offer an interesting spicy flavor that none of the other fruit today had. I enjoyed this fruit, even not-quite-ripe very much, and I rate it my second favorite of the day. A rounded, heavy-producing tree, the leaves on this are much narrower than Owari's and the fruit mature later in the season, holding well on the tree. I think this would be a great addition to my yard, extending the mandarin season well into spring.