by Kate Heyhoe
Today, citrus is available year-round, but winter brings the sweetest pickings.
The fertile Coachella Valley, just outside Palm Springs, California, still produces acres of the nation's sweetest citrus, dates, artichokes and other crops, but evidence of a heyday long past, one of small growers, is found in abandoned buildings, fallow fields, and fruiting but untended trees. Large agricultural enterprises still profit in the rural areas, but for properties near the encroaching suburbs and housing developments, land is far more valuable for its location than for its nurturing soil. Over time, urban growth and the hefty competition from mega-agribusinesses ensured the smaller growers' demise.
Cruising through Indio, "Date Capital of the World," my husband Thomas and I recently stumbled upon an unusual garden: a display of some two dozen abandoned citrus trees—exotic varieties of oranges, tangerines, lemons, tiny kumquats, and big yellow grapefruit and pomelos. The trees, just one or two of each species, had once been part of Jensen's Date Farm, whose few remains are faded blue minarets framing the entryway to the citrus grove, the retail shop, a few wooden buildings, and in the rear acreage, towering but ragged date palms. The only new item on the property is the shiny red, white and blue realtor's sign along the roadway.
While our young dog happily explored the date groves, Thomas and I wandered the gravel pathways of the citrus garden, neatly bordered by low chains to keep one-time visitors from treading too close to the trees. Black on white, hand-painted metal signs identified each citrus species. The signs, larger than license plates, are now rusted, dented, and in some cases missing entirely, but their friendly italicized letters often spelled out interesting details, such as the Meiwa kumquat's origin being China, though it's grown mostly in Japan.
It all seemed so sad, so empty, like the feeling of a once-bustling amusement park now shut-down. The faint echoes of joy and gayety, strangled by complete abandonment, are now eerily disturbing. Layers of rust, decay and general disrepair only reinforce the impression that, at one time, love and caring hands tended every little detail. Then poof! The caretakers disappeared and the plants were left to struggle on alone.
Half the trees are withered and near death, sparsely sprouting wrinkled, dry and undersized fruit. But amazingly, some of the trees bear plump, ripe citrus, proving that even in the natural conditions of the valley, some botanical life can survive, at least for a while.
Thomas plucked off a tangerine and pulled out his pen-knife to sample it. The juice was sweet, the flesh springy and the peel firm. It tasted better than any grocery-store tangerine. Not all fruit was as luscious, but we gathered enough good candidates to bring home bushels of grapefruit, and bags of oranges, kumquats, tangelos, tangerines, lemons and a few pomelos.
I've selected below an assortment of recipes to make the most of these luscious fruits, and right now is the ideal time to brighten up winter with your own juicy, ripe citrus pickings.
Citrus Salad with Black Pepper
Mesclun Greens with Kumquat-Lemon Vinaigrette
Moroccan Orange & Olive Salad
Radish and Orange Salad with Paprika
Spiced Fruit Salad
Spinach Salad with Tangerines and Dried Cranberries
Main & Side Dishes
Carrots with Egg Noodles and Lemon
Crispy Orange Duck
Lemony Chickpea-and-Tuna Spread
Pasta with Lemon and Roasted Asparagus
Pork and Kumquat Skewers
Roast Chicken with Orange, Lemon and Ginger
Copyright © 2002, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created February 2002
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