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The holiday season elsewhere might be heralded by snowstorms, mailers full of credit-card checks ("works just like a real check!") to make living beyond one's means more convenient, and shopping-mall parking lots crowded with cars, but around here there's no more distinctive sign of imminent Christmas than the appearance in produce markets of satsuma tangerines -- the thin-skinned, brightly flavored mandarin oranges that, says Kathy Barsotti of Capay Fruits and Vegetables in Capay, are also "pretty well totally seedless." No small advantage in a world of seedy competition.
The satsuma's season is not only short, but it coincides almost exactly with the holidays. (Almost all satsuma tangerines grown locally, including Capay's, are the "owawi," or midseason, variety.) Barsotti starts picking her fruit the week before Thanksgiving, and the last of the harvest is usually in by New Year's Day. (Capay does "some wholesale organic sales," Barsotti says, but the farm sells the bulk of its produce at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and other farmers markets around the Bay Area.)
If the satsuma is the ideal orange -- easy to peel, seedless, with a complex sweet-tart flavor and a powerful, evocative bouquet -- why is it not better known? One reason, Barsotti thinks, is that the fruit's delicate skin makes it tricky to raise in quantities large enough to interest such mammoth retailers as Safeway.
"Satsuma trees were widely planted in the 1950s in the southern Central Valley," Barsotti says, "but the citrus farmers found that their equipment was too rough to handle the fruit effectively. Ironically, it was the farmers of soft-skinned fruits -- plums and peaches -- who had more success with the satsuma."
The tangerine is also susceptible to off-season rains that can cause fungal problems on the skin. Even when all goes well, the satsuma (unlike the hardy navel orange) doesn't keep forever. Refrigeration can turn the inside pulpy, says KPIX-TV "Fresh Grocer" Tony Tantillo, and the preferable alternative -- storing the oranges at room temperature -- starts turning the skin dry after a few days.
"We don't treat the skins," Barsotti says. "I wouldn't buy satsumas whose skin was already turning dry, but the fruit inside is usually fine for a week or so."
That's more than long enough: Satsuma tangerines tend not to be neglected by passers-by who need a citrus fix, and bowls full of them don't stay full for long. The fruit's evanescent quality is even part of its appeal.
"They're a specialty item, seen as a seasonal thing," Barsotti says. And that season is now.