OROSI, Calif. — Easy to peel and nearly seedless, with tender flesh and tangy mandarin flavor, satsumas are one of the most popular farmers market fruits around Thanksgiving. Farmers like them too, especially growers in cold, low-lying areas, because they ripen early, before frosts usually strike, and the tree is exceptionally cold-hardy for citrus.
Satsumas do need some chill to develop full color and sweetness, however, and because of the unusually hot fall, the current harvest started a week or two late. Commercial growers "sweat" early satsumas with ethylene gas and heat to expedite coloring and reduce acidity, but this practice can cause off flavors and is less common for farmers market fruit.
The satsuma variety most commonly grown in California, Owari, reaches peak flavor between Thanksgiving and Christmas in the San Joaquin Valley; the other leading variety, Okitsu Wase, which has somewhat smaller fruits, ripens a few weeks earlier. In cooler coastal districts, where satsumas also flourish, the season is a month or more later.
Satsumas appear to be pure mandarin but actually have a few sweet orange genes. They were brought from China to Japan before 1600, and to California in the late 19th century. Satsuma cultivation boomed in the 1910s and '20s, declined for several decades and then picked up in the 1960s. In the last decade, as the state's mandarin plantings soared, satsuma plantings have remained stable at around 2,000 acres.
The best satsumas, small or medium fruits with relatively smooth rinds and fine flesh, come from mature trees, like the 45-year-old grove in Orosi that Jim Regier has been harvesting for farmers markets since 1982. His parents left Nebraska for Reedley in 1937 when their wheat crop failed, and he worked as a barber to buy his own land in 1973. The farm has grown with the family to include three growers at four locations: Jim sells at Santa Barbara; his son Troy farms in Dinuba and goes to Santa Monica on Wednesdays; his daughter Tami does the Pasadena market on Saturdays; and his other daughter's husband, Anthony Galpin, has his own land in Reedley and sells at Hollywood.
Troy, still boyish at 46, quit college after a semester to help his father farm. Outside farmers markets he is renowned for the championships he won on the semiprofessional super-modifed car racing circuit. He escaped serious injury in competition but gave up racing two years ago after he flipped his recreational ATV near Ridgecrest and almost died.
"I never wanted to go back to the hospital," he said.