Christmas mornings, while growing up in the New Mexico desert, usually ended with that one last gift stuck all the way in the toe of the stocking. With our arms stuck all the way inside, we could reach the presents that Santa never failed to forget: the Christmas orange. They were usually big, firm and pebbled and were dry and tasteless, brought months before to the grocery store, and were almost never eaten as there were other delights to distract us. Years later, in 1991 to be precise, I had moved to North Wales and that Christmas, Santa brought me a new Christmas orange that changed my taste buds forever. It was a Clementine and they were truly a delicacy.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 24, 2007. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
The Clementine (Citrus reticulata x Citrus auratium) is a very small fruit from the Rutaceae family of the Mandarin variety that was named the Clementine in 1902. Believed by most to be an accidental hybrid of a Chinese Mandarin, also known commonly as a tangerine (Citrus reticulata), and a Seville orange (Citrus auratium), Father Clement Rodier, a missionary priest in Algeria, is said to have discovered them. Some track the origin centuries before to the Chinese variety called the Canton Mandarin and in any case is of mixed heritage.
Although they were brought to the United States to be grown at the Citrus Research Center at the University of California around 1909, Clementines were not made popular in the United States until after the 1997 Florida winter that destroyed the citrus crops. Prior to that they were mainly appreciated in Europe and imported from Spain and Morocco. Spain still remains the largest grower of Clementines in the world although they are grown in both California and Florida. They are easily hybridized by bees and in 2006 one of the larger California growers threatened to sue beekeepers for allowing their bees to trespass into Clementine crop areas.
The fruit is very small compared to other varieties but like them, should be judged by its hand weight. They are virtually seedless and the peel comes easily off the sweet interior. Their flavor is much sweeter than a regular tangerine. Prone to blue and green molds, they are best stored in a cool, dry location and will only be at their peak for 2 to 4 weeks. They are exported October through March but are best during December and January when they reach their peak sweetness.
Because so much of the Clementines often has to be shipped from afar and their peak is so short lived, they are usually transported in cool storage and arrive in little boxes that always make me feel as if I am buying myself a gift-wrapped present. To prepare them for shipment there is a washing process and the natural waxes are usually removed and so they are sprayed with a light wax to try to maintain their natural aromatic oils and protect their delicate skin from absorbing other odors.
Is there a connection between the sweet Clementine fruit and the lost daughter of the American sad song Oh My Darling, Clementine? On the surface, no, because the song was made popular about 30 years before Father Rodier named the fruit on another continent. But looking a little more deeply, the song is actually based on the melody of an Old Spanish ballad like the fruit's heritage in the Spanish Seville orange.
There are many recipes for Clementine cakes and puddings but I like them in their original state best. For a wonderful holiday salad, try fresh spinach with sections of Clementine, sliced red onion, walnuts and warmed goat cheese with a light vinaigrette dressing. It is delicious and only second best to the fragrance of fresh pine tree and sweet Clementine.
About Michelle Naranjo
I am at best a sporadic gardener and began pulling weeds as a kid in Roswell, NM. My daughter and I now live in a historic home in urban downtown Long Beach, CA where I drag fun and interesting plants and garden accents. I have a never ending battle with nutgrass and try to keep our little farm in the city sustainable and organic.