Time to bring out the bucket list and make some check marks. Visit the Santa Monica Pier. Check. Eat a mandarin/tangerine/orange directly off a tree. Check. Visit Ojai and eat a Pixie tangerine right off the tree. Big bold red check! My wife's friend didn't realize how important fruit was to me, that eating a piece of citrus off a tree was on a bucket list, well Stephanie, it's true, and I am only getting started!
Thanks to my sister in law having a baby in mid March, the timing was perfect for me to be out in California right during the Ojai Pixie harvest. I have admired these little gems for years. They are usually the last new variety of tangerine/mandarin to arrive in stores before the citrus season comes to a close. I remember one season having them on my vacation to Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula and that was in early June. Talking about saving the best for last - Pixies are one of the sweetest, more flavorful tangerines you'll eat all year.
I drove into Ojai early on a Thursday morning. It was still dark, so I didn't realize the beauty I was surrounded by yet. The Ojai Pixie Growers Association hosts a meeting on the third Thursday of each month at the Ojai Coffee Emporium at 7am, which is why I was up and at them so early. I got meet several of the growers (the association has over 50 growers!) and hear them talk about their harvest. As of that meeting they had harvested around 900 bins of fruit with ⅓ of the crop having been sold. Hearing the excitement and passion that people had for this fruit was really inspiring. I learned so much at the meeting and had a fantastic time but the best was yet to come. I was invited Emily Ayala to come and see one of the orchards at Friend's Ranches. Boy was I excited like a kid on Christmas morning. My first walk through a citrus grove.
It was a short drive from the breakfast joint to the Pixies. I drove on a windy road into beautiful mountains. It wasn't a clear day, yet that didn't keep me from being captivated by the beauty. As my GPS took me right by where I needed to go, I got to experience the difficulty of trying to find a place to turn around on a mountain road. I turned out to be a good excuse to see more of the beautiful landscape. I made it back to the Friend's packinghouse. Across the street, I spotted the trees, full of orange specks. We made our way across the road and walked down a hill into the orchard, perfectly nestled right next to road. Then I saw the Pixies. Tree after tree full of fruit and blossoms. Yes these fruits have fruit on them the same time as they do blossoms. I am use to apple trees that bloom in May and have fruit in September. So not only did I get to see the Pixies, I got to really smell the Pixies.
I had that first bite. Amazing. Juicy. Sweet. Everything you would want in a piece of citrus. My tour guide kept handing my samples to try. I was in citrus heaven, savoring every bite. It's one of those moments I could re-live over and over again. Look where having a food blog has taken me!
Besides the Pixies, I also got to try Gold Nugget and Murcott mandarins. Both of these were the best I ever had of these varieties. Murcott mandarins are the variety you see this time of year in boxes of Cuties or Halos, despite the fact that retailers wrongly label these fruits as Clementines - those are long out of season. I doubt I will ever find a mandarin out of a box with a smiley face as good as the ones I ate in this orchard.
Emily and I got talking about the challenges in growing these fruits. I didn't take long to notice that some trees were absolutely loaded while others were practically empty. What's the deal with that? See the Pixie is alternate year bearing. It bears heavy one year and then light the next. Even on individual trees you can find some parts loaded and others more sparse (as in the photo above). Which is why it didn't catch on as commercial variety until the growers in Ojai came together.
Lately in Ojai, the temperatures have warmer than normal. This confuses the trees into producing more fruit. The fruit will be forever green and never ripen. Emily picked off green fruit she saw as we moved through the trees. The warm weather also causes the fruit to grow extra large. Last season all I saw in my local Whole Foods store was mammoth sized Pixies. That's a challenge for them as some retails demand the smaller fruit. With a name like Pixie, you would expect small fruit. I tasted several different sizes of fruit - small to large and my expectations were always meet, no reason to worry retailers.
I asked Emily some questions about weed & pest management. One of the biggest problems they face is weed control. Water in California is expensive, especially in recent years where rain has been a very rare event. They cannot waste a single drop. Weed cannot be sucking up any of the precious water, so they spray for weeds. They are not spraying on the fruit. The way the trees are packed they don't have the space to bring a vehicle down to spray. However one of their concerns going forward is the diseases that have dismayed the Florida citrus industry are showing up in California. If this becomes a problem they may be forced to spray their trees or lose them all. Let's pray this doesn't happen.
Buy Pixies. Seek them out. Forget the boxes of Cuties and Haloes, whatever other marketing gimmick is throw your way. When you buy them not only are you buying a fantastic piece of fruit, you are supporting an organization of growers who are passionate and excited to bring you that fantastic piece of fruit. If you ever have the chance to go yourself - take it. It's an experience you and the whole family would love and cherish. They offer tours on select Wednesdays and Saturdays. See their website for more details.