The World's Best Tangerines?
I spent my high school years in Ojai, Calif., a town of about 5,000 people nestled in a verdant valley near Santa Barbara, about 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles. The valley was hospitable to what would later be dubbed New Agers — the Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti lived there, and it has long been home to a Theosophist "colony" — and it famously stood in for the legendary paradise of Shangri-La in the 1937 film Lost Horizon. Among the many celebrities who live or have lived there are Anthony Hopkins, Ellen DeGeneres, Emily Blunt, Reese Witherspoon, Julie Christie, Larry Hagman, Malcolm McDowell, Bill Paxton, John Krasinski, and Diane Ladd.
But Ojai is also an agricultural community, full of citrus and other fruit-tree orchards. On chilly winter evenings the murky smell of smudge pots, lit to protect the trees from frost, filled the air when I was a teenager (they have since been banned due to air pollution); on warm summer afternoons, the considerably more pleasant aroma permeating the atmosphere was that of orange blossoms bursting into life from one end of the valley to the other. Probably tangerine blossoms, too.
Tangerines are a variety of mandarin orange, first cultivated more than 3,000 years ago in China. There are five or six main varieties, most of them grown in California. The Pixie is one of the more unusual. It was originally bred, out of a tangerine called the Kincy, at the University of California Citrus Research Center in 1927, but it wasn't made widely available for planting until 1965, after citrus specialists at the center had spent four decades working with it under various conditions. Even then, it wasn't considered to have much commercial potential, because its fruit came late in the season, and crops varied vastly in size from one year to the next. It had one thing going for it, however: It was simply delicious, intensely sweet without being cloying, with just enough acidity to make it interesting and a deep, concentrated orange flavor.
Seduced by its quality and either ignorant of its shortcomings or remarkably prescient, two Ojai citrus farmers, Tony Thacher and Jim Churchill, began planting serious numbers of Pixie trees in the early 1980s. Citrus is apparently particularly sensitive to differences in microclimate, and it turned out that the valley was absolutely perfect for Pixies. The fruit was wonderful, and the harvests were more or less regular. Witnessing the success the two pioneers had with the fruit, other growers began planting Pixies too. There are now more than 25,000 Pixie trees in and around Ojai, tended by more than 20 farmers, and the Ojai Pixie has gained renown all over California.
March is Pixie Tangerine Month in Ojai, and markets, bars, and restaurants around the community are featuring Pixies in various contexts. March is almost over, of course, but the season isn't: It extends into mid-summer (remember that this is a late-ripening variety). Get out to Ojai if you can and sample this very tasty fruit in situ. Or order them from Thacher at www.friendsranches.com or Churchill at www.tangerineman.com.