One sure sign of winter is the plethora and perfection of citrus now available at your neighborhood grocery store. Recently, when I’ve gone into work on Saturday mornings at the People’s Food Co-Op, I’ve found myself marveling at the incredible variety of orange, yellow and pinkish globes filling the shelves. To be so enraptured with the citrus I’m supposed to be stocking is very inconvenient, as it turns out that staring at fruit makes one’s productivity plummet!
In order to satiate my curiosity (or, more probably, to fuel it), I decided to embark on a truly juicy adventure: a citrus tasting. What? You’ve never done a citrus tasting?! First of all, me either. Second of all, gather all your friends and make one happen, because I’m here to tell you: it’s a riot.
For my citrus tasting, I selected nine varieties from the Co-Op’s produce aisle. Some major players missing from my line up were grapefruit (which I just don’t enjoy; I’m sorry), kumquats (they’re a little too out there–outliers, if you will) and limes and lemons (because biting into either of those plain did not sound pleasant). Other than these exceptions, I feel confident that my selection represented a fairly complete spectrum of citrus diversity.
I began with three varieties of mandarins (citrus reticulata): the clementine, the satsuma and the tangerine. Compared to sweet oranges (see next category), mandarins are generally smaller, sweeter and easier to peel. Fun fact: during Chinese New Year, mandarin oranges are used as decoration as a symbol of abundance and good fortune.
Next, I sampled four types of sweet oranges (citrus sinensis): Hamlin, navel, cara cara, and blood. To be precise, the cara cara is a variety of navel oranges (just compare their belly buttons and you’ll see the family resemblance).
Finally, I tried a couple of hybrids. Both fall under the umbrella category of the tangelo, which is a cross between a tangerine and a grapefruit. Despite being so closely related, these two types–the Orlando and the Minneola–are distinctly different in both appearance and taste. Read on to learn more!
Note: I assigned each citrus a rating on a scale from 1 to 5. Did I mention I took this tasting very seriously? My rating prefaces each description below.
2.5: Clementines may be in every kid’s lunch box this time of year, but I wasn’t blown away when I tried it again during the tasting. Yes, easy to peel; yes, nearly seedless; but I just couldn’t find the punch of flavor I was hoping for.
5: This fellow, however, did knock my socks off. So juicy and so sweet, the satsuma does not receive the attention it should. As a bonus, its leathery skin makes it very easy to peel. This fruit most likely originated in Japan.
the tangerine (gold nugget variety)
3.5: I found the tangerine satisfying, but nothing to write home about. Sweet, though not overwhelmingly. Not particularly juicy, though I may have snagged a dryer one. Fun fact: according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the name “tangerine” probably comes from an adjective meaning “of or pertaining to Tangier, a seaport in Morocco,” since the tangerine grew in that region.
the hamlin orange
4: My first of the sweet oranges was new to my palette and surprisingly good. This orange is smaller and smoother than its more popular navel cousin. It is notable for its pale flesh (very pretty in the sunlight) and juiciness.
the navel orange
3: The navel certainly provided the greatest challenge to peel yet, thanks to its thick skin, and I thought it lacked the melt-in-your-mouth juicy quality of the mandarins. Still, it’s a respectable citrus, and will, I’m sure, remain wildly popular in the US.
Crazy fact: that distinctive growth on one end of your navel orange is actually a second orange growing like a conjoined twin within the peel of the larger fruit. Whoever thought this growth looked like a human navel, though, obviously had never seen a belly button.
the cara cara orange
5: Okay, why did no one tell me about this orange? Its flesh is a gorgeous rosy hue, and its flavor–sweet and low in acid–has been described as more complex than most navel varieties. One fanciful reviewer claimed to taste notes of cherry, rose petal and blackberry. I wasn’t sold on the rose petal bit, but could stand behind the cherry comment. If you haven’t tried this, go buy a bushel. Serious.
the blood orange
4: To the uninitiated, peeling back the rind of a blood orange to find a fruit the color of, well, blood would be a startling experience indeed. The dark color of the flesh is due to the presence of anthocyanins, a family of pigments responsible for giving many flowers a deep purple or red color. Because the blood orange is so colorful, it boasts the most antioxidants of any other citrus.
the orlando tangelo
3.5: Again, this citrus simply did not grab me. As I peeled the tangelo, my nose was bombarded with a strong grapefruit scent, but when I took a bite I found its flavor as mild as Wikipedia warned me it would be.
1: Not a fan. Really tart, like a grapefruit. Though the recognizable bump on the stem-end of the minneola was kind of charming.
Thus concluded my first (but hopefully not last!) citrus tasting experience. What are your favorite citrus varieties?