WHAT COULD BE MORE APPEALING in winter than the brightly glowing, highly fragrant little orange globes called mandarins? They come in various sizes, some with seeds and some without, some noted for their juiciness and others for their easy-to-peel “zipper” skins — and the best of them with a vivacious flavor and lively balance of tart and sweet.
If you are lucky enough to be in California during mandarin season, you can sample many different varieties — and buy them very fresh, from a farmers’ market or fruit stand. Otherwise, though you may have a smaller number of varieties to choose from, you can usually find good mandarins at the grocery to brighten your table and your winter diet.
So what’s the difference between mandarins and tangerines?
Citrus expert Tracy Kahn, curator of the Citrus Variety Collection at UC Riverside, had this to say about the subject:
“Mandarins refer to a group of cultivars and includes Clementine and Satsuma and many other mandarins. . . . The word tangerine is often used interchangeably with the word mandarin but actually the term tangerine was coined for brightly colored sweet mandarins that were originally shipped out of the port of Tangiers, Morocco, to Florida in the late 1800s and the term stuck. Another interesting thing about mandarins is that we now know that there were three basic citrus types (mandarin, citron and pummelo) and that others that we think of as basic types or species (sweet oranges, sour oranges, grapefruits) are actually ancient hybrids or backcrosses of these. Also, many of the cultivars that we think of as mandarins or tangerines may in fact not be true mandarins, but actually mandarin hybrids.”
Whatever you call them, they’re marvelous!
Steve and I had the good fortune to go to Anna Thomas’s home in Ojai for lunch the other day (last year I wrote about lunch at Anna’s here), and it turned into a mandarin appreciation day. Along with a great soup-and-salad lunch, Anna made refreshing mandarin-gin cocktails, using Page mandarins–a vibrant juicy variety. For dessert, she offered a big bowlful of the exceptional Kishu mandarins with dark chocolate. Then we all drove off to nearby Churchill Orchard to buy a big box of Kishu mandarins to share!
The cocktail recipe Anna used is from Henry of Ventura Spirits, and features the company’s Wilder gin, made with local botanicals including sage and mandarin peel. If you have trouble finding this gin or Page mandarins, make substitutions as necessary.
Henry’s Wilder Gin and Page Mandarin Cocktail:
For each drink, mix:
1 oz. fresh lime juice
2 oz. fresh Page mandarin juice
½ oz. agave nectar (Henry uses ½ maple syrup+ ½ water)
1 ½ oz. Wilder gin
pour over ice, add splash of seltzer or soda or mineral water, and enjoy.