Temecula Sweet mandarin

Norm Jones with a box of Temecula Sweet mandarins that he grew near Temecula. (David Karp / April 28, 2012)

The intense sweetness, distinctive knobbly appearance and mysterious provenance of the Temecula Sweet mandarin have endowed the fruit with a mystique. Farmers market citrus vendors from De Luz, just a few miles from where the fruit is grown, say customers often ask for the variety and wonder what it is, but there's only one source, and that's a most secretive and gorgeous citrus farm, just west over the mountain from the suburban sprawl of Temecula. In a pristine valley of chaparral and oaks along the Santa Margarita River, the last free-flowing waterway in Southern California, across from a nature reserve where mountain lions prowl, is a 24-acre grove of Temecula Sweet.

It was planted in 1991 by C.T. Lin, a home builder who immigrated from Taiwan and Japan, and Norm Jones, a longtime airline pilot, now retired. According to his story, Lin, who trained as an architect and later grew yuzu, came up with the variety by hybridizing two mandarins, a satsuma and a ponkan, in a Montana greenhouse in the 1980s. (This would be a difficult cross to make, since satsumas have sterile pollen and rarely produce seeds, but it's not impossible.) He later sold half the Temecula property to Jones, who now manages it.

The fruits, which ripen very late, in April and May, are large and almost ridiculously easy to peel. The pulp, which has just a few seeds, is only moderately juicy, but its combination of high sugar and low acidity make it taste preternaturally sweet; the flavor is of the ponkan type, widely grown in Asia but rare here, being most familiar to non-Asians from canned mandarin oranges.

Jones, 66, was born near Griffith Park and graduated from UCLA with a degree in mathematics. He served in the Air Force for six years, piloting small planes as a forward air controller in Vietnam ("the worst job in the country — we flew at 1,500 feet, and the enemy could practically hit you with a rock.") After his discharge he piloted jets for American Airlines for 32 years.

Pilots have a fair bit of free time when they're not flying, and so Jones was able to develop several other businesses, including Air Hollywood, the leading aviation mockup soundstage used for movies, television shows and commercials, and a venture importing and exporting cars. Lin answered an ad for a car in 1983, became friends with Jones and got him interested in an Asian pear farm in a remote area near Warner Springs. That farm failed when Asian pears became more widely grown and prices dropped, but Jones joined Lin as a partner as he was planting his grove of Temecula Sweets.

The variety's quality and reputation have been superb, but this has not translated into profits for Jones and Lin, much to their disappointment. Lin, the more experienced of the two in horticulture, is 72 and has been unable to supervise the planting as he originally envisioned. The production of their grove, which appears to be infected with a severe strain of citrus tristeza virus, is low, 3 tons per acre at best. That's a third of the average for mandarins in California, where acreage has soared from 4,000 to 40,000 since the orchard was planted. New groves of the Gold Nugget variety, which competes in the same season, have knocked down the wholesale price of Temecula Sweet in recent years. Commercial growers and shippers take one look at the fruit's puffy appearance, which indicates that it is too fragile to go over a packing line, and say, "Get that thing away from me!"

But consumers take one taste and ask, "Where can I buy more?" It's available for $2.49 to $2.99 a pound at about 20 stores in Orange and Los Angeles counties, including Vicente Foods in Brentwood, Randy's Market in Torrance, Marukai in Gardena and Costa Mesa, Tanaka Farms in Irvine and half a dozen Mother's Markets in Orange County.

New Sunset Strip market

One of the most high-profile of the many new farmers markets opening this spring is slated to start May 31 on the Sunset Strip, in a parking lot just east of the old Tower Records, next to the former location of Spago West Hollywood. Sponsored by the Sunset Strip Business Assn., it will be held Thursdays from 5 to 9 p.m. Diana Rodgers, who established the Santa Monica Main Street market and then steered the Mar Vista venue to success, is serving as a consultant for the Sunset Strip event, which will start with 40 vendors, 25 of them farmers.

Selecting growers of proven quality and integrity is trickier than might appear to the layman, but Rodgers has managed to recruit an all-star lineup, including Fairview Gardens of Goleta, Sage Mountain Farm of Hemet, County Line Harvest of Thermal and Shear Rock Farm of Santa Paula, for vegetables; Polito Family Farms of Valley Center, for citrus; Tenerelli Orchards of Littlerock, for stone fruit; Cuyama Orchards for apples; Oasis Date Gardens of Thermal, a legendary grower new to farmers markets; Forbidden Fruit Orchards of Lompoc, for blueberries; DeyDey's Best Beef Ever of Lompoc; and, most intriguingly, Fontanella olive oil, grown on 5 acres of mature trees in Pacific Palisades.

The market organizers have made a special effort to enlist support from chefs of the district's many restaurants, who will have an hour set aside for them to shop, 4 to 5 p.m. Each week a local restaurant will showcase a few of its dishes in a "pairings pavilion," making use especially of the market's produce.

Two potential challenges appear to be traffic, which is beastly in the area in late afternoon and early evening, and parking, which is available at a discounted rate of $5 at three nearby lots.

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