Mud Creek Ranch grows 500 varieties of citrus. Their organic farm in Santa Paula is crowded with more than 200 varieties of tangerine, 15 types of pomelo, 10 kinds of grapefruit, and coveted varieties of oranges like bergamot and Cara Cara.
Every Wednesday they dress their Santa Monica market stall with a black tablecloth, the foreground printed with images of oranges, lemons, and white citrus flowers. On top of the illustrations sit countless orbs of actual citrus. Are there 20 varieties? Forty? It’s hard to keep track from week to week. Colors range from the pale yellow of Tahitian pomelos to the deep persimmon-colored Kishu mandarins.
There are many “quats”–kumquats, limequats, mandaquats–all of which are eaten like a bonbon, in one bite with the skin on. “The skin is sweet and the flesh is tart,” says Margarita Smith, daughter of Mud Creek owners Steven and Robin. “They are great for infusing because there isn’t much bitterness in the peel.”
Next to the baskets of sweet Persian limes, a chef from Melisse selects key limes for a curd that will be served alongside graham crackers and creme fraiche ice cream. Further down the table, Ari Taymor of Alma is bent over a basket of Marrakech limonetta–a bumpy lime best known for its floral notes. At Alma, Taymor chars the fruit whole before adding it to crab stock. The tart grilled flesh is used to add both bitterness and astringency to the stock, which flavors a dish of crab and nasturtium dumplings.
On his three-course market menu, Taymor opts for crowd-pleasers like Cara Cara and blood oranges, both of which end up alongside beets, arugula, and pistachios for a classic presentation of Southern California’s winter bounty. The painstaking process Taymor uses to carefully segment the oranges (laboriously using a paring knife to remove the pith while keeping the skin on each segment) is alone worth the cost of the $50 menu.
Mud Creek also sells specialty varieties like sudachi, a close relative of yuzu and a common ingredient in ponzu sauce. This time of year, they offer calamondin limes, often referred to as calamansi limes, which turn bright orange when allowed to ripen on the tree.
Marvin Gapultos, the blogger behind Burnt Lumpia and author of The Adobo Road Cookbook, grew up with a calamansi tree in his backyard and describes the fruit as “ubiquitous” in Filipino cuisine. “There will usually be a small bowl or dish full of calamansi halves meant to be squeezed and spritzed over everything from noodles to fish to grilled items,” he says. “Or you could make a simple dipping sauce made from calamansi juice and fish sauce, or calamansi juice and soy–either of which can be made spicy with sliced birds eye chiles.”
According to Gapultos, calamansi trees are more plentiful in the Philippines than lemon trees are in California. The biggest difference between the fruit at the L.A. markets and that in the Philippines is the color. “Because calamansi are used so much and so frequently in the Philippines, more often than not they are green when picked and served…there’s no waiting around to let the fruit ripen.” Other than a subtle change in the floral notes of the skin, he says the change in color doesn’t drastically change the flavor of the fruit. “They are both fairly sour,” Gapultos concludes.
You can pick up calamansi limes from Mud Creek Ranch at the Wednesday Santa Monica and Sunday Hollywood markets. If you aren’t ready to commit to Gapultos’ bistek recipe, he suggests using them the way you would other limes or lemons: in viniagrettes, dessert, tea, or a cocktail.