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December marks the beginning of citrus season in the Produce department, and the high season for one of the most anticipated citrus fruits: the satsuma mandarin. Chances are if you’ve been a Co-op shopper fora year or more, you’ve enjoyed one of these delectable fruits. They really are perfect for the season: deliciously sweet, incredibly easy to peel, seedless, and just the right size (small, but not too small). What more could you want in a healthy holiday treat?

What exactly is a satsuma?
There is a lot of confusion about what distinguishes a tangerine from a mandarins, and a clementine from a satsuma. It wasn’t easy even for me to sort it out, but here’s what I know.

Mandarin oranges originated in India about 3,000 years ago. From there they migrated to China, and were introduced to Western markets in the early 1800s. Their name comes from the rich orange color of the robes of Mandarin Chinese, which matched the vibrant colors of the fruit. Botanically Citrus Reticulata, the mandarin is a distinct species within the citrus family, and it encompasses all of the little citrus fruit varieties commonly called mandarins, tangerines, tangelos, and tangors. These sub-groups of the mandarin species have no botanical classification of their own but are used mostly by the citrus industry to distinguish common characteristics.
The most popular of the mandarin sub-groups are the tangerine, the satsuma, and the clementine.

The name tangerine is an American invention. It is used to describe a group of later season (January-March) mandarins that are darker orange, firmer, and more intensely flavored than other mandarins. Tangerines usually have seeds, and a tighter, harder-to-peel skin than mandarins. The Dancy, Pixie, Fairchild, and Honey (a.k.a. Murcott) are examples of a few of the most common tangerine varieties. The name tangerine was coined because this type of mandarin originally arrived in the United States from the port city of Tangiers in Algeria. The term continues to be an American one—these fruits are referred to as mandarins in most of the rest of the world.

Satsumas are the Japanese variety of mandarin orange. They come into season in mid- to late-November, making them one of the earliest citrus fruits to get to market. Of all the mandarins, satsumas are the most cold-hardy— the trees can withstand temperatures down to 15ºF. Cool temperatures work to sweeten the fruit, making satsumas from colder growing regions especially sweet and flavorful. Satsumas have exceptionally loose skin (sometimes called slip skin), which makes them very easy to peel. They are quite sweet, and they have wonderfully soft, juicy flesh. The downside to the satsuma (at least from a modern food system perspective) is that since their flesh is more tender than other mandarin varieties they are more of a challenge to ship over long distances, and they don’t have quite the shelf life of some of the firmer mandarin varieties.

The clementine is another early season mandarin, usually arriving in mid- to late-December. Though their history remains a bit mysterious, clementines most likely originated in Algeria at the turn of the century. They are quite sweet and virtually seedless with skin that’s a little tighter than the satsuma. This makes them a little more of a challenge to peel, but still easier than many other mandarins. Because they’re a little firmer and less tender than satsumas, clementines are favored by many modern fruit growers, shippers, and retailers for their ability to hold up to shipping and storage.

Though modern supermarkets usually prefer the hardier clementine over the delicate satsuma, we have found the super sweet flavor, ease of peeling, and soft delectable flesh of the satsuma makes it superior to its Algerian cousin. We try to only purchase our satsumas from orchards in California’s more temperate Northern counties. These areas experience cooler weather than most citrus growing regions, making them perfect for growing the best satsumas in the world.

December marks the height of satsuma season, and to celebrate, we’ll be offering the fruit not only in our bulk displays, but in 5-lb. boxes. They make great gifts, and you may be surprised to see just how addicting they can be. My family of three has no trouble putting away a 5-lb. box or two per week in mid-December. They’re a great antidote to the cold dark weather, and like other citrus, they’re chock full of vitamins to help ward away the inevitable colds that make the rounds this month.

Plus, like 95% of the rest of our produce, our satsumas are always certified organic!

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Mark E. Saunders, CFP