Market Watch: Mud Creek Ranch’s cornucopia of produce

Steve Smith holds Chandler (left) and Reinking pummelo grown at his Mud Creek Ranch in Santa Paula.
(David Karp)
Special to the Los Angeles Times

Located in a narrow canyon four miles north of Santa Paula, Mud Creek Ranch combines a historic family homestead, a commercial organic citrus and avocado orchard and a mystery zone where the usual rules of farming do not apply. It is a one-family experiment station where Steven and Robin Smith grow all manner of fruits, from apples to wampees, in some 400 varieties, very likely the most of any vendor at farmers markets.

It’s a mixed bag, but many are delicious and exotic, like the Tahitian pummelo, now in season, one of the most underappreciated forms of citrus in California. With thin skin, tender and juicy green flesh, a perfect balance of sweetness and acidity, and an intense, very pleasant lemon-lime flavor, it’s like eating a grapefruit with the pulp color and taste of a lime, only sweeter.

It seems appropriate that the Smiths, inspired and individualistic, with deep roots in citrus farming and research, should offer such a distinctive variety.

Steven, 58, sports a full head of gray hair, a mustache and wire-rimmed glasses. He’s intense, opinionated and thoughtful, and he likes to hunt, fish and smoke cigars. Robin, who originally studied to be a librarian, has a shy, mysterious smile that conveys both wistfulness and kindness. They have two daughters and one son, ages 22 to 29. The family and two employees do all the work of growing, picking and selling at farmers markets.

Steven’s grandfather Harry Scott Smith (1883-1957) was a renowned researcher in the biological control of citrus pests for the University of California, and his father too was an entomologist. Steven, who was born in Orange, earned a degree in botany and plant sciences at UC Santa Barbara, then went to work as a manager for citrus packers.

Robin’s great-grandfather was a pioneer orange grower in Riverside in the 1880s, and she grew up on an orange ranch north of Santa Paula. After her father died young, she managed the farm, and it was there that she met Steven, whom she married in 1980. Five years later they bought 40 acres of a Mexican land grant property, including a house built by the Miers family in 1868, which now serves as their office.

For five years they grew standard Valencia and navel oranges and sold them wholesale. They worked hard but didn’t make much money, so when the great freeze of 1990 devastated their grove, they decided to try a different approach. Although they left half the ranch in standard rows of citrus and avocados, next to their home they started replanting with a diverse range of unusual fruits and varieties. They started selling at farmers markets, and when they tasted something they liked at a nursery or university variety showcase, they’d order a few trees and see how they performed.

“I like to plant stuff that’s different, that tastes good and that brings more variety to the farmers market trade,” said Steven on a recent visit to the home ranch, which he has expanded to 70 acres. “If I like it, I plant more; if not, I have something to give to the in-laws.”

Unlike commercial growers, who generally arrange varieties in solid blocks and rows, for ease of care and harvest, he planted new trees wherever there was an opening, so there’s a mix much like a home garden or the traditional mixed agriculture of centuries past.

He’s got mulberries and macadamias, litchis and longans, bamboo shoots and quince, bergamots and yuzus. Some are unknown in the United States outside of scientific collections, such as the bizarre Rex Union citrus hybrid, believed to be a rare graft hybrid of Seville sour orange and pummelo or grapefruit, containing layers of two species in one fruit. Some are rare but worthy heirlooms, like Newcastle apricots. Others are common in commerce, such as Gala apples and Rainier cherries, but rarely grown locally in Southern California. (He grows many of these higher-chill fruits at another ranch in Adams Canyon, a wild, gorgeous area two miles to the west, where pumas roam.)

The Smiths have an estimated 200 varieties of citrus, a good portion of the varieties that are legally available in California, including six pummelos. He’s got the primary pummelo grown commercially here, Chandler, which has pink flesh and is low in acidity, so that it ripens early enough for Chinese New Year. He prefers Reinking, which has white flesh and a delicate flavor of lime and pineapple. (Amusingly enough, at farmers markets Robin has been known to write this variety’s name, which comes from a famous scientist and agricultural explorer, Otto A. Reinking, as “Rhine King,” with an image of a swan drawn from Wagner.)

But the Smiths’ favorite variety, and the most popular at farmers markets, is the Tahitian. In the South Seas the Tahitian pamplemousse, as it is called there, is highly regarded for eating fresh and for making juice and liqueur. So why is it so little grown or known here? Perhaps it’s because typical specimens have so many seeds that one practically needs a hacksaw to cut them in half. They do vary in quality, and some have resinous, soapy off-flavors.

Nevertheless, they have slowly caught on among about half a dozen specialty growers in California, including the Smiths, who have 40 trees of Tahitian and a similar variety, Sarawak. They sell the fruits from February to April, and sometimes as late as June, at the Hollywood, Ojai, Santa Monica Wednesday and Santa Barbara Saturday farmers markets.

The Tahitian pummelo originated from seed thought to have been taken from Borneo to Tahiti; a closely related variety was later introduced into Hawaii, where it is called Moanalua. Given its juicy flesh and thin skin, it might seem that some other citrus contributed to its ancestry eons ago, but molecular and botanical data so far show that it is a purebred pummelo.

It’s possible to eat Tahitians like drier pummelo varieties, separating each segment by hand and peeling off the bitter membranes; but it’s easier to slice the fruits longitudinally and then cut along the segment walls to fillet the flesh.

The possibilities for use in margaritas and other cocktails are intriguing. And for the next week, Shiho Yoshikawa of Sweet Rose Creamery in Santa Monica will offer a Tahitian sorbet that makes this fantastic flavor available without any fuss.