NULES, Spain - Columbus once brought oranges from these groves to the New World, and Queen Victoria used slices of their lemons in her tea.
These days the families who have grown citrus in this clay-rich soil since the Middle Ages are exporting clementines in a little wooden crate that is transforming the way Americans eat fruit.
"It's a happy story," Bartolome Calfan, 62, said as he picked clementines in the scorching sun from trees rooted in the same earth that his father and grandfather worked before him.
"Before 'the little box' we could only sell these around Christmas time, and only in smaller countries, like France. Now we pick clementines from October through March, and almost all of it for Canada and the United States."
Nearly 180 million pounds of clementines entered the U.S. in 2005, with the majority coming from this area near the port of Valencia. Yet only 10 years ago, few Americans had ever heard of, much less tasted, this smallest and sweetest of the mandarin oranges.
Even five years ago, most clementines were sold during the six-week holiday season stretching from Thanksgiving to New Year's Day. Now that season lasts for five months, from Halloween until April Fool's Day, and more than 200,000 acres of Spanish farmland has been converted from orange and lemon cultivation to clementines to meet the steadily growing demand.
Clementines have been available in Europe for many years, but the market for them in the United States didn't take off until a devastating freeze in Florida in 1989 made domestic oranges scarce and expensive. A lot of citrus fruit was imported from Europe then, and clementines started to catch on.
Seedless, juicy and easy to peel, they are especially popular with children. And as their availability increases, the clementine is moving out of the lunchbox and onto restaurant menus and dining-room tables, as an ingredient in chicken, fish or rice dishes and green salads, as well as desserts.
But that alone does not account for their rising sales.
Clementines are the only fruit that retailers sell primarily in bulk - shipped and sold in miniature balsam-wood crates covered with orange plastic netting. This sets them apart from other fruits and guarantees that the customer will buy from 28 to 35 clementines at one time.
That's a far larger quantity and a far greater price than customers will usually devote to produce purchases. The average retail price of a 5-pound crate of clementines ranges from $4.99 to $11.99.
The loose-skinned fruit, a cousin of the tangerine, has been around since 1900, when a Catholic priest named Clement Rodier grew the first natural hybrid in his garden in Algeria by crossing a Chinese mandarin orange with a sweet orange. But it never captured the U.S. fancy until 1990, when someone came up with the idea of packaging the tiny globes in gift boxes.
That honor is claimed by Javier Arnal, 44, whose family has been exporting citrus from Nules for more than two centuries. As North American marketing director for Nulexport, a growers' cooperative of 700 small farms, Arnal was looking for a way to break into the U.S. market without going into direct competition with domestic producers.
"There is no way we could top the price-quality ratio of the oranges, lemons and grapefruits you grow in Florida and California," Arnal said. "We chose to export clementines because they are a sweeter, cheaper and seedless alternative to your tangerine."
The problem was that U.S. supermarket chains were not eager to add another product line to their struggling produce sections. Citrus was typically shipped in 25-pound bags and sold loose, at a low profit margin.
Customers would buy a few pieces at a time from the mounds of orange or yellow-colored fruit in the store, while significant quantities rotted on the shelf, fell off the display or walked out of the store.
Arnal noticed that clementines flew off the shelves in France and Germany during the month of December, when fruit of identical size and color was sold in 5-pound boxes tied with gift bows.
"It made for a very attractive presentation," he said, "and I got to wondering, what would happen if we did that year-round?"
What happened is that sales took off, other growers followed Nulexport's example, and a new fruit craze was born.
While most clementines are eaten plain or in fruit salads, they can also be served in more creative ways. The following four recipes demonstrate the fruit's versatility as an ingredient in dishes that range from sweet to spicy, and from simple to complex.
6 cups baby spinach leaves
12 clementines, sectioned
½ cup walnut or pecan pieces
1 bunch green onions, sliced crosswise (optional)
½ cup sliced water chestnuts (optional)
For the dressing:
3 tablespoons olive oil
¼ cup fresh lemon or lime juice
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard (optional)
Place the salad ingredients in a bowl. Stir the dressing ingredients together and toss with the salad.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
(Recipe from Dr. Gabe Mirkin)
Striped Bass With Clementine-Habanero Sauce
1½ teaspoons allspice
1½ teaspoons coriander seed
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
½ teaspoon black peppercorns
4 striped bass fillets (you may substitute red snapper, sea bass or other firm-fleshed fish)
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 medium-size tomatoes
1 medium onion, peeled
2 garlic cloves, chopped
Juice of 8 clementines (you may substitute freshly squeezed juice of 6 oranges)
½ fresh or dried habanero chili (you may substitute 1 teaspoon habanero sauce or more to taste)
2 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons lard, or olive oil
6 clementines, peeled
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
To prepare the fish:
Place the whole spices in a small skillet over medium heat and cook, shaking the pan often, until the aroma is released, about 1 minute. Let cool slightly and grind in a coffee or spice grinder or mortar and pestle. Sprinkle the fish filets with the spices and let sit in the refrigerator until ready to use.
Coat tomatoes and onion with the olive oil, place on a baking sheet or in an ovenproof baking dish, and roast in a 450 F oven until blackened and blistered all over. (The tomato will take about 10 to 12 minutes, and the onion about 20.) Place tomatoes in a bowl to catch the juices, and let rest until cool enough to handle; peel.
If using a dried habanero chili, soak in hot water for 10 minutes before using. Wearing gloves, remove the seeds from either chili and place chili in a blender with the tomatoes, onion, garlic cloves, juice and chicken stock.
Heat 2 tablespoons lard or oil until rippling in a heavy, non-reactive, medium-size saucepan or Dutch oven and add the sauce. Cook uncovered for about 10 minutes or until slightly reduced and small craters form on the top. Set aside.
The fish can be grilled, pan-fried or broiled. Just season with salt and pepper and serve on top of a generous amount of sauce. Top with the relish, draining the liquid with a slotted spoon.
To prepare relish:
Using a sharp, small knife, remove the pith and skin from the clementines. Cut out the segments and place in a small bowl. Combine with the cilantro and salt and let rest for a few minutes.
(Recipe from Zarela, Mexican restaurant in Manhattan, New York City)
4 to 5 unpeeled clementines (about 1 pound total weight)
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
2 and 1/3 cups ground almonds
1 heaping teaspoon baking powder
Put the unpeeled clementines in a pot with cold water to cover, bring to the boil, and cook for 2 hours.
Drain and, when cool, cut each clementine in half and remove the seeds.
Then chop everything finely - skins, pith, fruit - in the food processor (or by hand, of course). Preheat the oven to 375 F. Butter and line an 8-inch spring form pan.
Beat the eggs. Add the sugar, almonds and baking powder. Mix well, adding the chopped clementines. I don't like using the processor for this, and frankly, you can't balk at a little light stirring.
Pour the cake mixture into the prepared pan and bake for an hour, when a skewer will come out clean; you'll probably have to cover the cake with foil after about 40 minutes to stop the top burning.
Remove from the oven and leave to cool, on a rack, but in the pan. When the cake's cold, you can take it out of the pan. Lawson thinks the cake tastes even better when it has sat a day.
(Recipe from "How to Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food," by Nigella Lawson, Wiley, 2002, $35.)
2 cups thin strips of clementine peel
4 cups cold water
Pulp and juice of 8 to 10 clementines
1/3 cup lemon juice
2 cups boiling water
3 cups sugar
In a heavy saucepan, combine clementine peel and cold water. Bring to a simmer, covered, over moderate heat; continue to simmer until peel is tender, about 30 minutes; drain thoroughly. Remove seeds and white membrane from peeled fruit; dice fruit.
To prepare marmalade:
Combine cooked peel, diced fruit, lemon juice and boiling water. Add sugar and blend thoroughly. Quickly bring to a boil and cook until mixture is thick and reaches 220 F on a candy thermometer, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat, skim off foam, and ladle into hot sterilized ½-pint jars, filling to within ½-inch from top. Seal and process in a Boiling Water Bath for 5 minutes. (Variation: Reduce boiling water to 1½ cups; add ½ cup brandy with the boiling water.)
Boiling Water Bath: Adjust jar covers according to manufacturer's instructions. Place filled jars on a rack in a kettle containing boiling water to a depth of 1 to 2 inches over tops of glass jars (do not pour boiling water directly over tops of glass jars). Cover the kettle and begin to count processing time. Add additional boiling water, if necessary, to keep jars covered.
Remove jars immediately when processing time is over, tighten seals if necessary, and set upright on a wire rack, a few inches apart, to cool.
(Recipe from www.HungryMonster.com)
The striped bass dish is served at Zarela, 953 Second Ave., New York City.
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