Meet the Mandarin orange perfected: Sumo Citrus

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BRYCE CRAWFORD
  • Bryce Crawford

Considering I just spoke to an employee at the northern Whole Foods who said the store is going into its third year carrying the fruit, I guarantee I'm late to the Sumo Citrus game. But the guy also said that the season for them is brief, just six to eight weeks, and even shorter this year because of rains in California, where they're grown, so maybe this will be news.

It's a fascinating tale, either way. The essentially giant Mandarin oranges hail from Japan, which was the only place to get the fruit, also known as Dekopon, until they turned up in South Korea in 1998, reports a 2011 Los Angeles Times story. Then came the importation into California.
He explained that the Griffith family, wealthy former developers in Southern California who own Suntreat and TreeSource, had bought the rights to the legal Dekopon budwood from Stark. He had organized a consortium of 13 growers who had planted 430 acres of Dekopon in local groves, mostly in 2008. All had signed confidentiality and exclusive marketing agreements with Suntreat. No one was supposed to even breathe the word "Dekopon." If anyone asked, they called the variety of the young trees "XP1." He expected to market the first crop in 2011.

Now, at last, that harvest has started. Over the past three weeks, I visited several of the orchards, including George's grove on a hillside in Lindsay. It was a vision out of classic orange crate art, with rows of carefully manicured young trees loaded with fruit, Japanese-style terraces at the upper fringes and a view of snow-capped Sierra peaks to the east.
Sampling the ones we were sent in a press kit, my first impression was of the pebbly skin's thickness — dig the top knot — and yet it easily peels away from the fruit. It's actually sort of a weird process, since everything is super-sized.

Once free, the seemingly pre-sectioned orange has unique heft and depth, like holding a child's hand as compared to a rubber ball. It almost seems like they should be warm, or breathing.

"The delicate sections separate easily," reads the release, which is certainly true. And though the high level of juicy sweetness is touted — and it is that, though far from unpleasantly so — a brief tang follows each bite. Even the aftertaste is pretty great: lingering and clean, with maybe a breath of bitterness.

Consider me a (finally informed) fan. Now, what to do with all those Cuties ...

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