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Red Tide Rising

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Five years ago, a Ventura woman noticed a baffling phenomenon. One limb of her Valencia tree, which had always borne normal oranges, displayed shocking scarlet fruit. Was someone trying to poison her?

Before calling the police, she turned to Nick Sakovich, a local farm advisor, and asked him to take a look at the fruit.

To her relief, he identified the red oranges as a rare but spontaneous mutation--a “sport,” in horticultural lingo. In fact, her Valencia had reenacted the birth of the blood orange in Sicily three centuries earlier.

Europeans have long prized this fruit’s appealing blush, intense berry-like flavor and complex, lingering aftertaste. Few Californians remember, but before navels and Valencias dominated the market, blood oranges flourished here too. In the last decade, reversing long neglect, locally grown bloods have again become widely available. They’re at peak quality right now, and if you know what and where to buy, you’ll taste what many fruit aficionados say are the world’s finest oranges.

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Blood orange coloration is part science, part mystery. Cold winter nights alternating with mild days favor the development of anthocyanins, red pigments that impart a distinctive appearance and taste; shaded or partly exposed fruit, as on the north side of trees, tend to develop the darkest peels. Anthocyanins also color cherries, berries, beets and roses, indeed many plants. In young citrus leaves, the pigmentation protects delicate internal cells from sunlight, but in blood oranges it seems to be a superfluous response to climatic stress.

To the vexation of growers, the color varies unpredictably from season to season, from tree to tree and even within a single cluster of fruit.

A rosy rind is no guarantee of dark flesh, but one farmer, Bob Polito, claims he can tell when a Moro, the leading variety, is dark inside. On a tour of his grove in Valley Center, in north San Diego County, he points out fruit with a light chocolate-gray tinge in the pores of the peel.

“It looks like the color is seeping out from the inside; don’t be fooled by a pretty red blush,” he declares. His eyes twinkling, he unfolds a fruit knife and slices half a dozen maroon-fleshed oranges that corroborate his theory.

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Some Moros grown in the San Joaquin Valley have such deep violet pulp--almost black--that they taste more of cherry or raspberry than of citrus. Though dramatic, these dusky beauties often have lost acidity and thus taste flat; when over-mature, they also develop an unpleasant musty aroma. Fruit with flesh of a medium burgundy color or lightly streaked with red usually offers a better balanced berry-orange, sweet-tart flavor.

About 350 of the 500 acres of blood oranges in California are in a strip along the eastern edge of the Central Valley, next to the Sierra foothills, from Bakersfield to north of Fresno. In this microclimate, dangerous frost-laden air drains down to lower elevations, but it’s still chilly enough to produce deep-colored bloods.

Just after Thanksgiving, many commercial producers, seeking high prices for an early harvest, pick the first fruit with acceptable internal color, though it tends to be sour. Prime season for San Joaquin Moros runs from Christmas into March, when the fruit is typically large and dark, with a thick, bumpy rind.

Although large commercial packing houses pay no premium for top quality, a host of small growers in San Diego County, many with small organic groves, sell their crops at specialty and farmers’ markets, where customers are choosy. They generally produce smaller, thin-skinned blood oranges, lighter in color but remarkably intense in flavor.

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“We wait until the fruit gets really ripe,” boasts Bill Hahlbohm of Sundance Natural Foods, who has grown and packed bloods for more than 20 years.

The South Coast season starts in January, peaks from February to April and extends into late spring. At the handful of groves in the Riverside and Ojai regions, the quality is also superb.

More than 95% of California blood oranges are Moros, favored by growers because the trees are vigorous and productive and the fruits “color up” most reliably. However, they vary so greatly in appearance that there’s no such thing as a typical Moro. They range from round to oval, from golf ball to softball size, from vermilion to light ruby, with a smooth or coarse rind.

The Tarocco variety is much rarer in California than the Moro, but growers who know both almost always prefer the taste of the Tarocco. Sweeter than the Moro, with fine, tender flesh, rich flavor and exquisite fragrance, it ranks among the world’s finest dessert oranges.

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Why don’t farmers grow more of them? Alas, the strain of Tarocco available in California is flawed: It takes six or seven years to bear fruit, compared to four for the Moro; the trees are excessively thorny; and the fruit, which matures in midseason (January to April, depending on the region), doesn’t hold well on the tree. Most seriously, the Tarocco often fails to develop good color, especially on the rind.

“Nothing [angers] a buyer faster than sending him blank blood oranges,” observes Lance Walheim, a leader in growing and marketing specialty citrus in the Central Valley. “It’s ironic, because the Tarocco absolutely has the best flavor, but it’s hard to sell, compared to Moros.”

In Italy, where Taroccos rule the fresh orange market, scientists have developed productive, high-colored strains. But it’s a lengthy, expensive process to import new strains to the United States, and offbeat blood oranges are a low priority. Meanwhile, Taroccos are well worth seeking out at farmers’ markets.

A third variety, the Spanish Sanguinelli, appears in small quantities late in the season, from March to May. Oval in shape, it displays the brightest rind blush of all blood oranges but only moderate internal color.

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In the early years of California orange growing, farmers tried many varieties before focusing on navels and Valencias. It was probably one of these pioneers, Thomas A. Garey, who imported blood oranges from the Mediterranean island of Malta in the 1870s. By the 1880s, Malta Blood was one of the most widely planted varieties, in such great demand that counterfeiters reportedly injected dye into regular oranges to sell them as bloods. The Redlands Citrograph of May 23, 1891, vaunted “tons of luscious, blood-red fruit” from the “southern citrus empires” of Riverside, San Diego, Los Angeles and Orange counties.

Though outstanding in flavor, the Malta Bloods were small-fruited and unproductive, so they eventually lost out to other varieties. But Edmund Patterson Jr., a crusty Redlands grower in his early 90s, still cherishes a Malta Blood tree planted in 1886. On a recent afternoon, as he mused over the oval fruit, lightly mottled with red, he recalled the vanished groves:

“When I was a schoolkid, many ranches had three or four rows of Malta Bloods. When the fruits got ripe in March and April, we’d ship them to the East, where Christians bought them around Easter and Jews for a holiday before that. But the packing house manager would cuss when the customers wanted 50 cartons of bloods in a 1,000-carton car. We pulled out the bloods about 1939, because demand faded, but kept this tree next to the guest house. It’s nice to have around, just an odd variety.”

What about the intriguing religious link? The egg shape of the Malta Blood may have inspired its popularity at Easter; perhaps the symbolism of Christ’s blood also played a part. The Jewish holiday was probably Purim, when the mishloach manot, a gift platter of baked goods sent to neighbors and relatives, traditionally included an orange. At Passover, too, Sephardic Jews baked orange cakes. Tying these strands to European origins, Jewish traders controlled the early export trade of Sicilian blood oranges from Messina.

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In the early 1900s, the Ruby, a round Italian variety of rich flavor but erratic coloration, began to replace the Malta Blood. By mid-century, it was virtually the only blood orange grown in California, though on a very small scale. Packing houses, attuned to mass production of uniform fruit, disdained unpredictable blood oranges. At the lowest ebb, no commercial market existed, just a few scattered trees in groves owned by Italians, who sometimes sold the fruit as a novelty.

The first Moros and Taroccos arrived in California in the early 1940s but didn’t supplant the Ruby until the ‘60s. In the early ‘80s, increased interest in specialty fruits, along with a taste for blood oranges among Americans who had traveled to Europe, fed a mini-revival. High prices attracted growers, and plantings increased steadily until about 1993. As new trees came into bearing, production surged; last season, a glutted market left many bloods unpicked on the trees. Since blood oranges alternate between light and heavy harvests, this year’s crop is smaller, but supplies are ample.

At Bob Polito’s stand at the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, reactions to blood oranges vary. Aficionados swoop delightedly on the display of ruddy Moros. Some shoppers are astonished. “I’ve never seen these before,” says Hue Kim Pham, who grins as she tastes a slice and pronounces it delicious. But 12-year-old Valerie Higgins is put off by the name. “Blood oranges, ugh,” she hisses, wrinkling her nose in disgust.

Occasionally, grocers avoid the sanguinary stigma by selling bloods as “burgundy” or “raspberry” oranges. The state, however, frowns on creative nomenclature, so Sunkist, the citrus cooperative that markets 85% of American bloods, now promotes “Moro oranges.” This strategy may soothe the squeamish, but how much more fun it would be if packers wrapped the fruit, as the Sicilians do, in thin paper printed with colorful images like Mt. Etna erupting Taroccos, with lava streams of fiery red juice.

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Italians traditionally enjoy blood oranges simply peeled and sliced, absolutely plain, as dessert at the end of a meal. Sicilians love them in salad with fennel, olive oil, salt, pepper and, often, red onions.

Celestino Drago, who comes from a small town west of Messina, serves a version of this dish with swordfish carpaccio at Drago restaurant in Santa Monica. Drago, who has two Tarocco trees in his yard and in March will open a Sicilian restaurant called L’Arancino in West Hollywood, also showcases the fruit’s alluring color and intense flavor in a simple granita.

Nancy Silverton of Campanile pairs blood oranges with another anthocyanin all-star, beets, in a salad with arugula. She also prepares blood orange sorbet accented by pomegranate seeds, black Mission figs and black pepper.

At Spago in Beverly Hills, Sherry Yard embellishes a classic mille-feuille with blood orange zest in the pastry cream and with juice from the fruit in the accompanying sauce.

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Gary Palm of the Mission Inn in Riverside, who experiments with citrus from the UC Riverside Collection, infuses white chocolate mousse with a blood orange reduction. Recently he made the dish, most successfully, with red Valencias from the Ventura mutation. (Culinary proof that California excels at blood sport?)

Now that blood oranges are ubiquitous on dessert menus, is the time coming when they’ll match their standard-colored blond kin in popularity here as in Italy?

Not so fast, says Mark Johnson, Sunkist’s manager of specialty citrus: “Even though familiarity and demand are increasing, blood oranges will continue to be a niche item for the foreseeable future.”

Still, he insists, “nothing tastes better.” It’s just that, as Johnson puts it, “Americans prefer blonds.”

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CAMPANILE’S BEET AND BLOOD ORANGE SALAD

BLOOD ORANGE VINAIGRETTE

Juice of 2 blood oranges (about 1/4 cup)

Juice of 1/2 lemon

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2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Salt

SALAD

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12 baby or 6 medium beets

1 tablespoon olive oil

Salt, pepper

1 shallot, sliced

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4 blood oranges

4 cups arugula

24 walnut halves, toasted and tossed in 1 teaspoon walnut oil

BLOOD ORANGE VINAIGRETTE

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Combine blood orange juice, lemon juice and balsamic vinegar in bowl. Whisk in olive oil and season to taste with salt. Set aside.

SALAD

Wash beets and remove greens, if any. Toss beets in olive oil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Place in baking dish, cover with foil and roast at 400 degrees until tender, about 1 hour. Allow beets to cool, then remove skins by rubbing with clean towel. (Beets will stain, so don’t use your favorite towel.)

Slice beets into wedges (quarters, sixths or eighths, depending on size of beets). Season beets with salt and pepper to taste, then marinate with sliced shallot in 1/2 of Blood Orange Vinaigrette 45 minutes.

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With sharp knife, cut both ends off each blood orange to expose pulp and provide flat surface on each end. Standing oranges on end, slice downward between pulp and pith following contour of orange. Repeat around each orange until all are completely peeled and no pith remains. Slice each peeled orange into 1/3-inch rounds. Season orange slices with salt and pepper to taste, then marinate in 1/4 of vinaigrette 45 minutes.

When ready to serve salad, toss arugula in some or all of remaining Blood Orange Vinaigrette and season with salt and pepper to taste. Divide arugula among 6 plates and carefully place 1/6 of beets on top of arugula on each plate. Arrange orange slices and toasted walnuts among and around beets.

6 servings. Each serving:

418 calories; 210 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 36 grams fat; 22 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 1.72 grams fiber.

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BLOOD ORANGE GRANITA (LOW-FAT COOKING)

4 cups freshly squeezed blood orange juice

1 cup sugar

Sicilians like their desserts sweet. In this recipe, for instance, Celestino Drago calls for 1 1/2 cups of sugar, an amount that produces an intensely sweet granita. For a less-sweet dessert that also freezes more quickly, use 1 cup of sugar. Serve the granita in a clear glass or a bowl, accompanied by brioche for dipping.

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Combine blood orange juice and sugar in 8- or 9-inch glass loaf pan and stir until sugar is dissolved. If some of sugar does not dissolve, add 1/2 cup warm water and stir.

Place pan in freezer until ice crystals form, about 1 hour. Stir and return to freezer, stirring every hour, until texture is appealingly granular, 3 to 6 hours.

8 servings. Each serving:

152 calories; 1 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 38 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.12 gram fiber.

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Blood Types

*Tarocco: The leading blood orange variety in Italy, it is esteemed by connoisseurs for its tender flesh and perfect balance of sweetness and acidity. It is rare in California because it doesn’t color as deeply as the Moro.

*Ruby: Imported from Italy in the 1880s, the Ruby was the leading variety grown in California from 1910 to 1960. Though its flavor is excellent, it fell into disfavor because it tends to be seedy and its coloration is erratic.

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*Spanish Sanguinelli: It displays the brightest rind blush of the blood oranges but only moderate internal color. The oval-shaped fruit matures late in California, from March to May. It is occasionally available locally at farmers’ markets.

*Washington Sanguine: The “light blood” variety commonly grown in Morocco developed from the same parent as the Spanish Sanguinelli. It isn’t commercially available in California; this example comes from the Lindcove Research Center in the Central Valley.

*Moro: Moros make up more than 95% of the blood orange crop in California because they reliably develop deep pigmentation--sometimes the flesh is dark violet--with an intense berry flavor. The productive trees typically bear fruit in clusters.

*Cara Cara: The orange counterpart of pink grapefruit has a delightful tutti-frutti flavor. The Cara Cara developed as a mutation on a tree in Venezuela in the early 1970s. This year’s tiny harvest is the first in California.

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Where to Get Bloods

*Agnew Sweet Acres: Very dark Moros from Lindsay, Tulare County. At Los Angeles Farmers’ Market (Adams Boulevard and Vermont Avenue), Wednesdays 2 to 4:30 p.m.; Long Beach (Promenade North at East Broadway), Fridays 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Santa Monica (Arizona Avenue and 2nd Street), Saturdays 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Hollywood (Ivar Street and Hollywood Boulevard), Sundays 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

*Armstrong Garden Centers: Moro, Tarocco, Spanish Sanguinelli and Cara Cara trees for sale, $19.99 in five-gallon containers. Twenty-six locations in Los Angeles area; for nearest location call (818) 914-1091.

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*Coyote Growers: Organic Moros from Fallbrook, San Diego County. At Tustin Farmers’ Market (El Camino Real and Third Street), Wednesdays 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Orange County Fairgrounds (88 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa), Thursdays 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Torrance (Wilson Park, 2200 Crenshaw Blvd.), Saturdays 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Hollywood (Ivar Street and Hollywood Boulevard), Sundays 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

*Etheridge Farms: Moros and Taroccos from Dinuba, Tulare County. At Brentwood Village (Chayote Street and Sunset Boulevard), Wednesdays 3:30 to 7 p.m.; Encino (17400 Victory Blvd. near Balboa Boulevard), Sundays 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

*Lilac Valley Orchards: Moros from Valley Center, San Diego County, and blood orange marmalade. At Westchester Farmers’ Market (6200 block of West 87th Street), Wednesdays 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Hermosa Beach (13th Street and Hermosa Avenue), Fridays noon to 4 p.m.; Santa Monica (Arizona Avenue and 2nd Street), Saturdays 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Santa Monica (Ocean Park Boulevard and Main Street), Sundays 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

*Pauma Valley Citrus: Organic Moros and Taroccos from Valley Center, San Diego County. At Santa Monica Farmers’ Market (Arizona Avenue and 2nd Street), Saturdays 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

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*Polito Family Farms: Moros from Valley Center and Pauma Valley, San Diego County. At Santa Monica Farmers’ Market (Arizona Avenue and 2nd Street), Wednesdays 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Westwood (Weyburn Avenue at Westwood Boulevard), Thursdays 2 to 7 p.m.; Venice (Venice Boulevard and Venice Way), Fridays 7 to 11 a.m.

*Schaner Farms: Moros from Valley Center, San Diego County, and fresh Moro juice ($5 for half a gallon). At Santa Monica Farmers’ Market (Arizona Avenue and 2nd Street), Wednesdays 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

*Timber Canyon Ranch: Moros and Taroccos from Ojai, Ventura County. At Ventura Farmers’ Market (Main Street and Mills Road), Wednesdays 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Thousand Oaks (Wilbur Road and Thousand Oaks Boulevard), Thursdays 3 to 6:30 p.m.; Ventura (Santa Clara and California streets), Saturday 8:30 a.m. to noon; Santa Clarita (College of the Canyons parking lot A), Sundays 8:30 a.m. to noon.

*Walker Farm: Organic Moros from Exeter, Tulare County. At Glendale Farmers’ Market (100 North Brand Blvd.), Thursdays 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Pasadena (Pasadena High at Paloma Street and Sierra Madre Boulevard), Saturdays 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

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*Welburn Farm: Organic Cara Caras and Moros from Fallbrook, San Diego County. At Santa Monica Farmers’ Market (Arizona Avenue and 2nd Street), Saturdays 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

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Blood Thirsty?

At the Riverside Orange Blossom Festival, April 18 and 19, you can participate in a tasting of blood oranges from the UC Riverside Citrus Variety Collection. Downtown Riverside. For information, call (909) 715-3400.

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