The Best of California Specialty Citrus

December 11, 2018

While scaled supply chains and transportation innovation have made citrus a year-round sight on menus and in supermarkets (thanks to off-shore supply from the Southern Hemisphere, in regions like Australia, South Africa, and Peru), for the U.S. market, winter remains peak season for domestic citrus. And while Florida is primo for juicing oranges, and Texas king of grapefruits, California remains the boss when it comes to specialty citrus.


Innovative growers in Southern California and the central valley have established productive orchards that produce heirloom citrus varieties at volume, meaning that we East Coast-folk have access to wholesale volumes of fruit that bring color, diversity, and a range of nuanced flavors to the typical citrus line-up. Here are some buyer-favorites from our growers in California that we can’t wait to share with you this winter!


Moro Blood Oranges


  • Origin: While all blood orange varieties originated in Italy, not all are strictly grown in Italy. The Moro blood orange is the most common blood orange in U.S. markets, and is most exclusively grown in the state of California, though Texas, Arizona, and Florida are following suit.
  • Size: Medium to medium-large, and round.
  • Color: Rind is bright orange, and typically tinted with a red hue. The flesh is always a deep crimson color, and nearly seedless.
  • Flavor: Sweet and tart, with a prominent berry-like flavor, most often compared to that of a raspberry. For the best possible flavor, they should be eaten at room temperature.
  • Best Uses: Delightful eaten out of hand, often squeezed for fresh blood orange juice, incorporated into seasonal cocktails like sangria, turned into jam or chutney, sliced and laid atop pound cakes or tossed into salads, juiced and zested into risotto. A traditional Italian usage of blood oranges is to toss slices into a salad with red onions, olive oil, salt, pepper, and fresh fennel.
  • California Availability: Starts in December and runs till late spring.



Cara Cara Oranges


  • Origin: It is speculated that the cara cara orange is the result of a natural cross between the Brazilian Bahia and the Washington navel. The cara cara was first discovered in the mid-70s in Venezuela, and later introduced to the United States in the early 80s.
  • Size: Medium-sized and round.
  • Color: Rind is bright orange and flesh is a pretty pink hue.
  • Flavor: The fruit is juicy, slightly tangy, less acidic than your average orange, and offers notes of cranberry. They’re also seedless.
  • Best Uses: Like other navel oranges, they can be eaten out of hand. Or, juice them, blend into smoothies, use for citrus curd, or even roast slices with a bit of brown sugar and a drizzle of honey.
  • California Availability: Peak season spans between December and April.



Chandler Pomelos


  • Origin: The pomelo (also spelled “pummelo”) is native to Southeast Asia and is believed to be the ancestor of the grapefruit. The Chandler variety was developed in the 1960s at the University of California Riverside from a natural cross of the Siamese Pink and Siamese Sweet varieties.
  • Size: Very large, comparable in size to a small cantaloupe.
  • Color: The fruit’s rind is thick, soft, and ripens to a bright yellow color. Once sliced into, the fruit will reveal either vibrant yellow-pink to bright-pink flesh.
  • Flavor: Arguably sweeter than the average grapefruit (but still on the mild side), pleasantly tart, and free of the bitter bite grapefruit is known for. The segments of flesh are surrounded by a thick, tough pith which must be removed as it is bitter in taste. The sacs of juice contained in each segment are quite large, and offer a satisfying crunchy texture. It is moderately juicy, dry enough to be “flaked” into a salad. Some large seeds are easily removed.
  • Best Uses: Most often eaten out of hand, pomelos segments can be tossed into salads, or used as a cocktail garnish. The peel is also often reserved and candied.
  • California Availability: In season from late November through February.





  • Origin: The kumquat is native to China, and has a long history in both culinary use and traditional medicine. Their name comes from the Cantonese phrase kam kwat, meaning “golden orange,” and they are often given as a gift symbolizing prosperity during the Lunar New Year festival in January or February.
  • Size: Very small, only 1-2 inches long, and oval-shaped.
  • Color: Vibrantly orange rind and flesh.
  • Flavor: They’re a peculiar fruit: for one, they can be eaten entirely whole (skin, flesh, seeds and all). And two, (opposite to what you’d expect) their skin is mildly sweet, while their flesh is tart and tangy. The secret to the best kumquat-eating experience is to roll the kumquat around firmly in your fingers (this releases the sweet oils from the skin) until it feels almost like a water balloon. The sweetness from the skin will meld with the tartness of the juice, resulting in a complex, slightly addictive, bright burst of flavor. If the sweet-and-sour combo isn’t desired, simply push the tart juice (along with the small seeds) out of the skin before eating.
  • Best Uses: Kumquats can be enjoyed as “flavor bombs” out of hand, but are also perfect for marmalades, candying, slicing and baking atop tarts or cakes, slicing over salads, or even innovative pickling.
  • California Availability: Available November through March.



Finger Limes


  • Origin: Considered a micro-citrus, finger limes are one of six native wild citrus species grown across Australia. They’ve become a popular specialty citrus in today’s culinary arts, and are now grown by a handful of farmers in California.
  • Size: Small (usually around three inches in length) and oblong (finger-like, even – hence the fruit’s name).
  • Color: The skin of the finger lime varies between light green, maroon, and a deep purple-brown (almost black) color. Depending on the maturity of the fruit and other environmental factors, the pulp ranges between vibrant colors like lime green, translucent pink, and red.
  • Flavor: The pulp is made up of clusters of tiny juice-filled vesicles (sometimes called “crystals”) that release a powerful, bright, tangy lemon-lime flavor when chewed. Because their crystals look awfully like caviar, they’ve been lovingly nicknamed “citrus caviar”.
  • Best Uses: Often used as a garnish (especially good atop seafood like oysters and scallops), folded into aioli, incorporated into desserts like cheesecake, stirred into libations like champagne, or simply substituted anywhere that calls for a squeeze of lime.
  • California Availability: Season begins in July, but peaks between November and January.



Satsuma Mandarins


  • Origin: A hybrid between a mandarin and a sweet orange, Satsuma mandarins were stumbled upon in Japan more than 700 years ago. They’re said to be the sweetest of all the citrus varieties and are often shipped with the leaves on for that extra special appearance.
  • Size: Smaller than a navel orange, they’re shaped like flattened-spheres.
  • Color: Rind is bright orange, and super easy to peel. Flesh is also a vibrant orange, and seedless!
  • Flavor: Super sweet, but still pack some acidity. Juicy with notes of honeysuckle.
  • Best Uses: Usually eaten out of hand, they can be peeled into segments and added to green salads, frozen for later use in smoothies, or laid atop Greek yogurt. They can also be juiced and incorporated into specialty, seasonal cocktails.
  • California Availability: Begin around November through the winter months.



Gold Nugget Mandarins


  • Origin: Cousin to the Satsuma mandarin, the Gold Nugget mandarin was developed by the folks at the University of California’s Riverside citrus breeding program back in the 50s.
  • Size: Medium-sized and squat.
  • Color: Rinds is bright orange and slightly pebbly with deep orange-colored flesh. Easy to peel.
  • Flavor: Rich and sweet, the flesh is seedless.
  • Best Uses: Eaten fresh, but also added to salads, fruit tarts, cocktails and smoothies.
  • California Availability: Usually matures around March, and is available through spring.



Meyer Lemons


  • Origin: First introduced to the U.S. from China in the early 20th century, Meyer lemons are a cross between a regular lemon and a mandarin orange.
  • Size: Smaller and rounder than the average lemon.
  • Color: Smooth, thin rind that is a rich orange-yellow color. The flesh is a deeper yellow. Due to their thin skin, Meyer lemons can be used whole, skin and all, if desired.
  • Flavor: Less tang than the conventional lemon, and notably sweeter with an intensely sweet, deep citrus flavor and notes of lemon blossom-floral.
  • Best Uses: Technically, conventional lemons and Meyer lemons can be substituted for one another, but regular lemons aren’t nearly as sweet. With that said, recipes that call for Meyer lemons should use Meyer lemons. Juice them for cocktails and vinaigrettes, zest into risottos, roughly chop into muffin mixtures, and use in compotes.
  • California Availability: Usually available from early winter through the beginning of spring.  



Buddha’s Hand Lemon


  • Origin: Buddha’s hand is believed to have originated in India, and eventually made its way to China thanks to Buddhist monks. In China, the citron symbolizes happiness and longevity, and is often served or given as a gift during the Lunar New Year.
  • Size: Ranges in size from a small lemon to a small melon.
  • Color: Rind is bright yellow and lumpy with finger-like segments.
  • Flavor: The fruit is rind only, there is no juice, flesh, or seeds. It lacks any bitterness, but is tart and sweet, comparable to a kumquat, with lavender undertones.
  • Best Uses: Can be used as a substitute anywhere that calls for lemon zest, like pastas or salad dressings. The peel is commonly candied, and can also be infused into vodka or simple syrup for cocktails. Otherwise, the fruit is used for ornamental purposes, and, due to its potent scent, as an air-freshener.
  • California Availability: Late fall through early winter.


Posted by:
Danielle Columbo

Winter, Winter Citrus, Specialty Citrus, Pomelo, Blood Orange, Kumquat, Mandarin, Finger Lime, Buddhas Hand

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