Sacramento is the gateway to farm-fresh diversions. Less than 50 miles away, in its quiet, rural communities, Placer County offers winter tours and baskets brimming with edible and seasonal delights. Heralding the arrival of mandarin season, the annual celebration of these diminutive citrus gems takes place along Placer County farm trails and at farmers’ markets and festivals.
Agriculture was Placer County’s second Gold Rush. By 1856, nearly 6,000 Placer County acres were under cultivation. In the early 1900s, Newcastle was the fruit-shipping capital of the world. The diverse landscape —– valleys, Gold Country foothills, majestic Sierra Nevada — supports a wide range of crops, including world-famous mandarins.
In 1994, Placer County growers decided they needed a marketing arm for promoting agriculture and started Placer Grown. That same year, Joanne Neft, along with the Newcastle Business Association, founded the Mountain Mandarin Festival. That first year, six mandarin orchard farmers participated and saw close to 1,500 attendees. Today, there are 60 mandarin growers in Placer County, and 17 orchards are represented at the festival, which now attracts more than 25,000 visitors a year who delight in this succulent fruit, available only from November through January.
The Satsuma mandarin is the signature citrus crop for Placer County; these mountain mandarins are well-known within California and beyond. Satsumas are distinctive as a result of the terroir where they are grown. Warm days and cool nights translate into more intense flavors and sugars than mandarins grown in the valley or in warmer locations.
“If you buy Placer County Owari Satsuma mandarins, you’re buying from the farmer,” says Rich Colwell, owner of Thundering Herd Ranch in Penryn. “We only pick when fruit is ripe. It’s sweet and more flavorful.”
Cuties and Halos, the tiny mandarins that are sold widely in grocery stores, are grown on large-scale farms throughout the San Joaquin Valley. They are clementine, tango, or Murcott mandarins, but they are not Satsumas. Available November through April, those fruits are efficiently harvested at mature green, so may not have full coloration or the same rich flavors as locally produced mandarins. They are stored in large packinghouses, often for long periods of time, and may be treated with ethylene gas to increase their orange color.
“Placer County farmers pick fully ripened fruit according to color and feel,” says Cindy Fake, director at University of California Cooperative Extension for Placer/Nevada counties. “It’s not treated with ethylene, and it’s stored in ambient temperature conditions. We don’t grow enough for large-scale commercial markets. Generally, I would say our fruit is going to a very premium market and at premium prices.”
Placer County mandarins are available at local farmers’ and specialty markets. On weekends in December, follow the mandarin trail during Mountain Mandarin Orchard Days to mandarin oils, sauces, honey, juices, cookies, cakes, spreads, and, of course, hand-picked and tree-ripened fruit. Enjoy arts and crafts, farm animals, and even a visit with Santa. Combine this local excursion with farm stays, bed and breakfasts, and vacation rentals, and you have a delicious night or weekend ahead of you.
It's never too late to plan. The 25th Annual Mountain Mandarin Festival, Nov. 16-18, 2018, marks the official beginning of the Placer County mandarin season. Enjoy frequent entertainment, food, arts and crafts, Best Mandarin Contest, and more.
Gold Country Fairgrounds
1273 High Street, Auburn (Parking and entry available at 209 Fairgate Road)
Courtesy of Joanne Neft, co-author, Placer County Real Food From Farmers Markets: Recipes & Menus for Every Week of the Year: Spiced Mandarins with Pomegranate & Kiwi
2 cups sugar
3 cups water
2 cinnamon sticks, each about 4 inches long
14 whole cloves
½ cup fresh ginger, peeled, thinly sliced
8 green cardamom seeds
6 whole star anise
12 Satsuma mandarins
1 to 2 kiwis, peeled, thinly sliced
½ cup pomegranate seeds
Dissolve sugar in water and bring to boil. Add cinnamon, cloves, ginger, cardamom, and anise. Simmer 10 minutes. Remove from heat. Cover pan, and let steep 15 minutes. Using sieve, strain spices and discard. Chill syrup in covered pan several hours. Cut peel from mandarins, being sure to remove pith. Slice mandarins in ⅜-inch rounds, then place in large serving bowl. Cover with syrup and refrigerate 2 hours. Serve in small dessert bowls; top with kiwi and pomegranate seeds. Serves 8.