The statisticians at the California Department of Agriculture tell us there is an average of 466 pieces of fruit on every navel orange tree in California this year. That’s the highest “fruit set” in a decade. On top of that, this year’s harvest is predicted to be nearly 20% bigger than last year’s.
Now, more is not necessarily better in the world of agriculture. A higher set usually means smaller fruit, since the tree’s energy is divided more ways. And big crops are not necessarily the best crops.
But none of those doubts occurred to me when I first read those numbers. Instead, like a kid with a Christmas hangover, this bonanza of citrus immediately made me think, “More presents for me!” You could say visions of navels were dancing in my head.
There is nothing better on a rainy winter day than to slip your thumb under the fragrant peel of a navel orange, popping the segments in your mouth two or three at a time. As a finish to a long dinner it’s not bad either, served with walnuts to crack and a little glass of Port or Armagnac to sip.
There’s juice of course. Navels aren’t as appreciated for that as their cousins the Valencias. These are the standard juicing oranges, harvested in the early spring in California and throughout the summer in Florida, where they represent more than half the orange crop.
In California, the navel predominates, and while it is true that a chemical compound called limonin turns its juice sour if it sits very long, I’m not sure how I would have survived a weeklong holiday head cold without it. Save the rinds from juicing to make candied orange peels.
One of my favorite simple winter desserts is to peel half a dozen or so navels, slice them crosswise, arrange them in a shallow serving bowl and chill them for an hour or two in a light vanilla-scented simple syrup. It’s like a Dreamsicle for grown-ups. Serve it with almond cake or sugar cookies.
There are savory uses as well: Navel sections brighten up a winter salad with roasted beets and goat cheese (try a little grated horseradish in the vinaigrette). They also are good paired with avocado and tossed with crab meat or shrimp.
And, of course, you can stuff poultry with quartered oranges before roasting. This is particularly good with duck.
Hungry? You’re in luck. We’re heading into the very best time of year for navels. Though the harvest technically begins in late November, there is a marked improvement in flavor after the holidays. From mid-January to mid-February is prime time.
Despite the high fruit set this year (which was determined by the weather last spring, during pollination), sizing is actually pretty good because of all that rain in December.
But much about this year’s crop is still to be determined. The fruit changes as the season progresses, and a couple lucky rolls of the dice could mean a really great year for navels. What is needed now is more warm weather and sunshine to ripen the fruit and further pump up the sweetness. Already, field tests are showing extremely high levels of sugar for this time of year.
But we don’t want too much heat. Growers love oranges because they don’t need storage; they will hang patiently on the tree waiting to be picked. If the winter is too warm, particularly without the balance of cool nights, they won’t last as long. (“It’s like keeping them in the closet instead of the refrigerator,” as one grower says.)
So keep your eyes on the weather reports out of the Central Valley. That’s where most oranges come from these days. Despite being the iconic Southern California fruit, of the 1.5 million tons of navel oranges that are expected to be harvested in the state this season, 1.4 million will come from the Central Valley.
Casual visitors to Visalia may have missed the orange groves. The flatlands where the freeways run are primarily planted with nuts and stone fruit: peaches, plums and nectarines. That’s where the winter cold settles, giving those trees the chill they need to go dormant. Orange trees, which don’t want that much cold, are planted on the hillsides, where the chill air slides right past.
Though much of the industry has moved north, there are still pockets of fine oranges in Southern California, such as the area between Ojai and Santa Paula, where Marian Wilke and her husband, Richard, have farmed 20 acres since 1976.
She’s the source of this homey recipe, which I fell in love with last year at a cooking contest of old-fashioned citrus desserts that was held at the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa.
It is moist and rich tasting with a wonderfully fragrant citrus flavor that is pure California -- even though the recipe comes from frozen Wausau, Wis., where Wilke’s mother-in-law collected it in the 1940s.