Those who know me know that unless there is a raging pandemic, I spend part of the first quarter of every year in Riverside, California hosting citrus treks. The citrus treks are at the Givaudan Citrus Variety Collection (GCVC) at the University of California Riverside. The GCVC is home to over 1,000 citrus varietals, 1046 as of this writing. You can read more about it here.
I have been leading treks since 2015. Every year as I prepare to visit the grove, I am filled with anticipation. What new citrus varieties will we taste? What citrus variety will be the hands-down favorite? What fruit will we taste at its peak bringing an all new respect for the variety? Here, I share my highlights from Citrus Trek 2022. I would love to hear from some of you that trekked in 2022 – what are your highlights?
The heady aroma of citrus in bloom was magnificent…
On the morning of March 15, our cavalcade pulled past the gated entrance of the citrus grove and parked alongside a row of citrus trees. We stepped out of our vehicles to the awesome aroma of citrus in bloom. Now don’t get me wrong, the grove always smells wonderful, but I have visited around 50 times, and this day was something special. Many of the citrus flowers had bloomed overnight, and the result was a phenomenal once-in-a-lifetime aromatic experience. The aroma was heavy with powerful floral, sweet and fresh citrus notes floating in the the cool morning air. This was a moment of serendipity. You can’t predict a citrus bloom like this, and it all depends on the perfect weather conditions a few days before. So I count myself and my guests among the lucky to have had this outstanding experience.
And the 2022 winning varietal is the…
This trek season the varietal that stands out the most is (drumroll please) the Shahani Red Navel Orange (Citrus sinensis (L.) Osbeck RUTACEAE). Descriptors for this orange include mulled wine, cherry, dark berry, strawberry, and spiced citrus cola and the darker the color of the peel and the fruit, the more prominent the “cola” note.
The Shahani has an intriguing story. Mr. Shahani found this fruit on his property in Upland, California in 2008. He had grafted the tree it was found on from an old Washington navel orange tree years before. The fruit of the tree he grafted it from was a typical navel orange with no red flesh. But this new tree produced red-pigmented fruit. And there appears to be a positive correlation between the exposure to sunlight and the amount of red pigment in the fruit – fruit from inside the tree, where the sun does not reach, do not have as much pigment.
This change in fruit from the old tree to the new tree is from a bud sport. A bud sport is when a part of a plant (such as a limb) shows morphological differences from the rest of the plant. Bud sports with desirable characteristics are propagated to new cultivars that retain those characteristics. This is exactly what happened with the Shahani Red Navel tree, it was propagated to create this new cultivar in the GCVC. From Mr. Shahani’s property to the GCVC. And who knows, the next step could be commercial citrus growers adding this selection to their groves, and we could see it at our local produce market someday.
But there has to be a runner up…
Of course, there is a runner-up.
The runner up is… the three rows of about 100 different cultivars of Australian Finger Limes (Microcitrus austrolasica). These are new to the collection this year. These are just what they sound like, finger-shaped limes with some twists from a traditional lime. First, when you cut one in half, you find it is bursting with little round citrus pulps that pop when you bite them – which is why they are also called citrus caviar. This grove of Australian Finger Limes is particularly compelling because different seed lots are being researched. Thus the fruit was red, yellow, light green, dark green and in between those shades.
The flavor of the Finger Limes is nothing to write home about. If I had to pick one descriptor, I’d say citronella (citronella is the aroma of many of the outdoor candles used to keep insects away). Finger Limes are all about the experience. If you add them to a cocktail or beverage, they look like tiny versions of the boba you would find in a bubble tea. I gave some finger limes to the chef where we were having dinner the evening after our trek, and he created a fun dish with the finger lime citrus pulp as a garnish.
Let’s pick citrus for brewing beer…
I love visiting the grove with customers and co-workers. However, one of the highlights of my trips to Riverside is when Dr. Tracy Kahn, the curator of the GCVC, invites me to join her in the grove to do something outside of my usual treks. One morning this year she invited me to join her in the grove to pick citrus fruit that will be used in brewing small batches of craft beer which will be on tap at The Barn, an on-campus restaurant, bar and music venue.
We picked two fruits, both new to me; the Moanalua Pummelo, which came to the collection in 1914 from Honolulu, and Poona Rangpur Lime, which came to the collection in 1996 from Karnataka, India. Both were pleasing and refreshing to taste, and I am sure they will make delightful companions for beer. One thing I have learned trekking with bartenders is the fruit that is the sweetest, juiciest and most delicious right off the tree is not always the best companion for beer. A more nuanced fruit with unusual notes is often a more compelling partner for beer. The Moanalua and Poona both fit that bill.
Here’s to TasteTrek Citrus 2023
I bet you can guess two citrus trees that will be on the top of my list to visit with customers when we trek in 2023 – the Moanalua Pummelo and the Poona Rangpur Lime. Here’s to Citrus Trek 2023.