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Half an hour from Sacramento, mandarin country explodes orange this time of year as the fruit ripens and picking party gets started.
Off Interstate 80 before you even get to Auburn, the mandarin trees hang heavy with globes that are brilliant orange and packed with vitamin C. For a month, maybe two, mandarins are at their peak. After that, they can be disappointingly dry and quick to mold. Get them while they’re good—juicy, sweet and so nutritious they could almost stand in for a flu shot.
More than 35 farms operate in the Sierra Nevada foothills, clustered mostly around Penryn, Newcastle and Lincoln. Many are open for u-picking starting in November and running through December, sometimes January; check websites for specific open dates. Spend a brisk late-fall morning clipping baggy satsumas—so wicked-good!—off the awkward, shapeless trees, then sack them up to take home to friends and family, or leave in a health-promoting bowl in the office lunchroom. You’ll also discover that many of the farms have diff erent varieties of mandarins—including another favorite, the clementine—and more fall fruits such as persimmons, pomegranates and other, soon-to-ripen citrus like lemons, oranges or grapefruits.
For lots of information, go to mountainmandarins.com. Meanwhile, here are just a few highlights.
It’s a Party!
Mandarin season officially kicks off with the annual Mountain Mandarin Festival at the Gold Country Fairgrounds in Auburn, Nov. 17–19. Some 30,000 visitors show up to gobble mandarins and purchase plenty of mandarin-based gifts including marmalades and syrups, marinades, olive oils, even mandarin-blossom honey from local beekeepers (look for some from Newcastle Mandarin Ranch). Purchase a variety of mandarin-flavored goodies to consume on-site—milkshakes, popcorn, fudge—and pick up a “Mountain Mandarin Festival Cookbook” with growers’ favorite family recipes and dishes created by pro chefs. With crafts, rides and at least one clown, the festival is family-friendly, and we’ve yet to see a child who doesn’t love to quick-peel a satsuma and eat it right up. General admission $8, kids younger than 12 and seniors $5, parking $6; mandarinfestival.com
The Party Continues
Orchard Days takes place the fi rst and third weekends in December, with many of the orchards participating. they’ll bust out the specialties—fresh mandarin juice, craft brew, food trucks, petting zoos, arts and crafts, guided tours and the like.
For certified organic mandarins, get your mandarins at S&J Mandarin Grove (Newcastle), Side Hill Citrus (Lincoln) or Sunset Ridge (Newcastle). At S&J, a bird-flecked lake adds to a bucolic experience on the farm. Side Hill sells its mandarins and Meyer lemons at its fruit stand just off Interstate 80 in Newcastle—pick up 3-, 5-, 10- or 25-pound boxes. Sunset Ridge provides an excellent u-pick experience with buckets and clippers, and has gorgeous picnic grounds where you can enjoy a broughtfrom-home lunch. sandjmandarins.com, sidehillcitrus.com, gotmandarins.com
Something for Everyone
At Highland Orchard (Penryn), once high season kicks in, you’ll fi nd plenty of mandarin-inspired treats, including fudge, breads, cookies and cakes, plus some yummy-smelling soaps. In the past, Highland Orchard has had vintage carousels for children to ride (like the ones outside grocery stores back in the ’60s). to really enhance your mandarin experience, book the on-site cottage for a farm stay. highlandorchardmandarins.com
Stop by Struble Ranch (Loomis) to see the 100-plus-year-old barn and admire the barn quilts. A barn quilt is a 4-by-4-foot plywood plank painted with a pattern or scene, named something lovely (such as Citrus Beauty or Highland thistle or Mandarin Basket) and erected onto the side of the barn. While you’re at Struble, pick up a map of the barn quilt trail (owner Jan Struble, who painted her own ranch’s barn quilts, organized the Loomis Basin Barn Quilt Committee to help preserve the rural tradition, and other farms in the area have quilts as well). tractor afi cionados will appreciate Struble’s collection of caterpillars and antique chugger engines on display. strubleranch.com
Olive Oil Galore
At Colwell thundering Herd Ranch (Penryn), taste not only the scrumptious mandarins, but olive oils, balsamics, chocolate sauces and brittles, blossom honey, pies and more. the ranch also sells a variety of citrus-infused soaps, lip balms and body butters. Pick up some persimmons and Meyer lemons while you’re there. Private tastings and tours are also available with reservations. mandarinoliveoil.com
Make a Weekend of It
At the Flower Farm (Loomis), you’ll find, among other things, mandarins, Malbec grapes, a veggie garden, a nursery and gift shop, a cafe, the Casque Wines tasting room and the always-lovely Flower Farm Inn—come on, stay overnight! December is a particularly busy month on the compound, with Christmas tree sales and visits from Santa. flowerfarminn.com