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Citrus Lunacy on Gene Lester’s Ranch: Attack of the Acid-Eaters

April 16th, 2010 · 5 Comments · Uncategorized

by Dave Arnold:

Flying Dragon Trifoliate Orange. Cool branches, no fruit.

I believe in building your taste memory. A good taste memory makes you a better cook and a better eater.  One of my favorite techniques is to try a zillion varieties of something all at once – to quickly see the whole range of possibilities. A couple years ago Harold McGee and I charged through a 2 day apple-eating marathon at the world’s largest collection of apples. A life changing experience.  Lucky for us, McGee arranged a similar experience with citrus last month.  Here is the story:

Gene Lester is a collector.  At his ranch in Watsonville, CA he collects wood specimens, classical music recordings, pre-war Fords, avocado trees, and citrus.  At over 200 varieties, his private collection of citrus tree is the most impressive in the US.  Every March, Mr. Lester invites the California Rare Fruit Growers Association out for a day of discussion and tasting. McGee scored invitations for the Cooking Issues team. Then, disaster struck – two days before the tasting we were told that the Rare Fruit folks would need to exclude us for insurance reasons.  Ever gracious, Gene Lester invited us to a private tasting with a small group of his friends the day before the big event. We prepared for a citrus feeding frenzy.

Some dangers lurk in the eat-it-all, shotgun-tasting approach. Gastrointestinal distress is one.  Not a big deterrent for me –physical comfort isn’t my priority, and I have a cast iron stomach. Ditto for McGee and Nastassia.  Then there’s palate fatigue:  marathon liquor tastings (even if you’re spitting) can bring this on. The danger that concerns me most is information overload.  When tasting unfamiliar food families (an example for me is pu-erh teas, which I’ll write about in an upcoming post) it’s best to focus on thoughtful tasting of a few distinct examples.  But, if you are very familiar with the basics of a food family – I’ve been a citrus fanatic since I can remember – overload is much less likely. I know how to taste citrus – and I wanted to rack up the variety count.

It took a while for Mr. Lester to figure out that we wanted to taste not just a lot of citrus, but a preposterous amount of citrus.  It took us a little while to figure out if he would let us.  In the end, it all worked out.  Some highlights from the tasting, and from Mr. Lester:

Gene Lester on Oranges vs. Mandarins:

“All sweet oranges, with the exception of some blood oranges, taste pretty much like an orange.  Every mandarin has its own unique taste.”

I was surprised to hear him say that, but after a couple-dozen types of mandarins and tens of oranges, I couldn’t argue.  Some oranges are really pretty, like the pink fleshed Cara Cara that is becoming a popular premium commercial crop.

Gene Lester about to cut into a Cara Cara orange with his badass fruit testing knife. Don't worry, we brought one too.

Some oranges have better or worse juice (the juice of Navels and some other citrus have high concentration of limonoate A-ring lactone (LARL) which is enzymatically converted to the extremely bitter substance limonin after juicing: see here). Some are better for eating out-of-hand. But all the oranges tasted pretty orange-y.  Each mandarin, by contrast, had its own perfume and taste. One of the mandarins, Armstrong, tasted exactly like canned mandarin oranges (although I don’t think it is a prominent variety for canning). Man, did I eat a lot of those growing up, and I thought it was the canning process that gave them that tinny note.

A note on Citrus Color:

The Peel:

All the ripe limes in Lester’s collection have yellow skin, including the Bearss (or Persian) lime familiar to us from U.S. supermarkets –California climate does that to limes.  Perversely, though we import a lot of limes from Mexico, the Mexican lime – which we call the key lime – isn’t what we import.  We import the Bearss limes.  Lester said he believes the dark green limes in our stores are painted.  I wasn’t sure if he was joking.

All of Lester’s citrus peels were beautiful and highly colored –California peels look great.  It is a strange citrus fact that the more tropical the climate, the more poorly colored and raggedy the peels look –sorry Florida.

Left: California peel. Right: Florida peel. Sorry Florida.

Unfortunately, on many types of citrus, California climate also makes peels very thick.  Lester explained that his climate wasn’t quite hot enough to do perfect grapefruits and pomelos. Oh well.

Thong Dee Pummelo. Look Ma, no fruit!

The Fruit:

The blood oranges don’t get too bloody on Lester’s ranch, because they don’t get the significant hot day/cool night temperature swing that they thrive on. But we had some fairly dark Morros.

Moro blood orange

Blood oranges are dark because of anthocyanin pigments that develop in them; pink and red fleshed citrus, on the other hand, are pigmented by lycopene.  Little known fact: The lycopene in pink grapefruit juice is removed by gelatin freeze-thaw clarification (maybe I’ll post on that some day).

Standouts:

While many varieties were beautiful, like this Variegated Eureka Lemon with pink flesh:

Variegated Eureka Lemon

…and many had such crazy names that we were compelled to try them –think Eustis Limequat, Nippon Mandarinquat, and Sinton Citrangequat

:

Nippon Mandarinquat

…and many look famously bonkers, like this Buddha’s Hand citron flipping you the bird:

Rude Buddha. Buddha's Hand Citrus flipping us off.

…a few stuck out in our minds as fruits with potential.  Much of the time, when I say, “potential,” I mean “potentially great for cocktails” –bear that in mind. Our tastes run to the acid. Not included in this list is anything which we can already source –like Australian finger limes, yuzucalamondin (calamansi), or kieffer lime (note that Gene Lester prefers the spelling kieffer  lime to the more usual kaffir lime because in South Africa, the latter word is a pejorative racial epithet.  We have banished k*ffir lime from our vocabulary).

1. Australian Finger lime. 2. Cut it open. 3. Squeeze it out. 4. Zero-hydrocolloid lime caviar.

Poorman Orange, aka New Zealand Grapefruit: Simply put: delicious. It doesn’t taste quite like a grapefruit – it is a little less bitter and perhaps more complex, but it definitely does not taste like an orange. Citrus Varieties of the World states, “When mature, the flavor is unique among citrus varieties, having some of the characteristics of the grapefruit combined with the slightest trace of lime and lemon, somewhat resembling a ‘bitter lemon’ soft drink.” Nastassia’s notes just say, “amazing.” I think the poorman orange could be very popular in the US.  It is primarily grown in New Zealand, where there isn’t enough heat to grow excellent quality proper grapefruits.  I bet some parts of California are perfect for it (like Gene Lester’s ranch). New Zealand is allowed to import some citrus into the US, but I don’t know if Poorman orange can be shipped.  I’ve never seen it in any market.

Poorman Orange, aka New Zealand Grapefruit

Kusaie, and Rangpur Lime: Both of these are “mandarin limes” (a mandarin crossed with lemon that taste like limes –go figure).  Both are great for cocktails (or marmalade).  Rangpur lime is sometimes used as a rootstock, and also as an ornamental citrus. Think of it as a tiny, seedy fruit with a nice flavored peel and a taste between a sour orange, a lime, and a lemon.  Kusaie is primarily grown as an ornamental  in Hawaii.  I think the peel of the kusaie is even better than the rangpur, but the taste is somewhat similar.  Kusaie would make some killer cocktails.

Kusaie and McGee

Ginger Lime: The name is pretty accurate –this guy is a lime with a gingery tasting peel.   Pretty darned good.  Most citrus leaves are not aromatic –kieffer lime leaves (aka lime leaves) are the notable exception—but ginger lime leaves are. They have a great gingery aroma.  We want to throw some ginger lime leaves into soups.

Ginger lime posing with Nastassia

Natsudaidai:  The natsudadai is a Japanese citrus that, according to some, is an acquired taste.  If so, we acquired that taste pretty quick.  It is a super-refreshing mix of sour and bitter with some sweet to back it up.  It is almost a ready-made beverage. Just add bubbles.  Better yet, add gin and bubbles.  We really, really want to find a source for natsudaidai.

Super-tasty Natsudaidai

Allspice: An interesting little tangelo (mandarin crossed with grapefruit) that has a full, orange-y-mandarin flavor but really does have an allspice note.  A winner.

Allspice. Tastes like..... allspice.

The problem with many of these fruits is they are impossible to source.  David Kinch, of Manresa, in Los Gatos, CA, is fortunate enough to have a working relationship with Mr. Lester, and sometimes features rare citrus from Lester’s ranch at the restaurant. FoodPlayerLinda from Playing With Fire and Water, one of our favorite blogs, received a Gene Lester care package from Kinch and wrote a characteristically beautiful post on it here (how do we get on Kinch’s citrus mailing list!).  She also published a cool recipe using ginger limes here.  Weird citrus is hard to source because import rules are very strict –there is a looming and ever-present danger of plant pests destroying our domestic citrus industry.  Even countries that are allowed to send citrus to the US do so only with permits and special inspections (the rules).  Even Florida is not allowed to ship citrus to other citrus producing states (check this).

If you can grow your own citrus, a good place to source trees is Four Winds Growers, which has an amazing array of dwarf citrus trees to choose from.

If you are looking for the most comprehensive guide to citrus on the net, Gene Lester recommends the Citrus Pages, created and maintained by Jorma Koskinen.  Look there for a exhaustive list of varieties with photos, tasting notes, history, and lineage.

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5 Comments so far ↓

  • H. Alexander Talbot

    great piece, thanks for sharing your travels and tastes.

    we just started trying to grow yuzu and finger limes from the above four winds. hopefully I don’t ruin these wonderful ingredeints

    A

  • foodplayer

    I’m so excited by this post!
    Ever since sampling Gene Lesters citrus, I’ve been telling anyone who will listen about these extraordinary varieties. Understandably, people have a hard time getting excited about something that they may never have access to. I know that I am forever wrecked for the bland supermarket standards.
    The good news (for me) is that after some research and advise from Gene, I’ve found that yuzu, yuko, and the Ichang hybrids (highly fragrant) are cold hardy and are possible candidates for Zone 5 (CT). I have a yuzu tree waiting to be planted. I’m still searching for yuko.
    As for getting on Chef Kinch’s mailing list— it was simply an act of generosity and kindness. I’m still trying to figure out how to repay it.

  • patriciowise

    Great post! too bad we get a very hard time sourcing even “common” types of citrus…

  • Jennifer R

    I think if you have the time and space nothing beats growing your own stuff, but obviously this isn’t usually a realistic option for most cooks.

  • James

    great post.

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