Visiting an Algarve orange grove has been on my mind for a couple of years now. The winter of 2012 has been a particularly cold, clear and dry one in the Algarve and orange growers are very nervous.Â After a few days of rain in early November the weather cleared and there’s been barely a drop since January. Indeed, there have hardly been any clouds in the sky most days. Days have required a jacket and sometimes a pair of gloves. Nights have been definitely nippy and frost has shown up on a couple of especially clear, still ones.
When I recently visited the citrus grove of Manuel and Joaquim Medeira Rodrigues near Silves they were assessing the damage of recent -0C nights on their crops.Â As we walked their 3 different properties it was evident that Mother Nature hadn’t been in a good mood of late. The ground was littered with prematurely fallen oranges and clementines in a number of places. “Cold weather causes
the fruit to drop” Manuel reported. In other spots the frost burn to leaves and fruit was very clear.
Manuel, Joaquim and JoÃ£o are proud of their citrus operation which produces very high quality oranges, grapefruits, lemons and clementines for hotels, restaurants and fruit markets as far away as Lisbon. While it is extremely difficult to product totally organic citrus fruit, this father and son team do their best to use green farming techniques so that their customers get a high quality, pesticide free product. They leave grass and non-invasive weeds to grow between the rows of citrus trees. This not only conserves precious water but gives them an indication when a pest is invading. They keep their orchards well trimmed to allow as much air to pass through the trees as possible, keeping mildew and fungus to a minimum. When it does have to be addressed, they prefer to spray lightly with copper, a natural mineral. Mediterranean fruit flies are another pest that all citrus orchards need to deal with. These folks hang bottles of a sweet liquid that contains a pheromone or hormone that the flies are naturally attracted to. They fly into the bottle and then can’t escape to lay their eggs and do damage to the skins of the fruit.
Joaquim explained that many of the orange producers in the Algarve sell their crop to multi-national food producers before it is even harvested. Once ripe, the crop is harvested and shipped off to factories to make preserves and other citrus products. But for Mr. Frutas it is a very different strategy. Serving the hospitality and consumer markets means that they have to have product available year round. So they have many varieties of oranges, each that ripen at different times of the year so that the fruit is always fresh and newly ripened when it leaves their small production warehouse.
I met JosÃ© Luis Guerreiro as he was hand picking crates of oranges.
They are then taken to a surprisingly small shed where they are stored briefly and then gently dumped onto a conveyor belt which moves them into a unit that brushes off the field dirt and puts a nice soft shine onto the fruit. No waxes or artificial polishes are applied to the Mr. Frutas product so that it can be as natural as their customers wish it to be. The conveyor then moves the fruit along to a circulating table with a series of diameter regulated exits on it. The fruit is assessed on its size and slides down a short trough and into a waiting wooden crate. The crates are then labeled as to size, variety and company information and stacked until the delivery truck arrives to take them to market.
Not only did I get to sample many oranges, tangerines and clementines as we wandered the orchards, but I had the chance to pick the fruit as we went along. That may seem like a small thing to many, but when you grow up in Canada like I did, citrus fruit seems slightly magical.
So getting to pick right off the tree made me feel like a kid on a school outing again!
I came back to my apartment ladened with fruit and have been cooking up a storm ever since. I’m experimenting with mixing local products to create some new savoury taste sensations.
So far I’ve made a spicy chutney with oranges, onions, lemons, honey, port, piri-piri and spices. I’ve also made a very different chutney of oranges, onions, dried figs, ginger, port, piri-piri and spices. So similar and yet so different. Each lovely to accompany a cheese tray to brush on pork or chicken before grilling or to serve along side sausages. I made up a batch of dry-rub, a spice mixture of sea salt, pepper, piri-piri, dried orange peel and herbs. I rubbed that on a chicken breast and let it sit in the fridge overnight and then quickly pan-fried it in olive oil. It was heavenly! Grilling would have been preferable but my little kitchen doesn’t have an oven. I’ve also made up a batch of pink grapefruit jam, even though I’m not a fan of grapefruit. And today I bought some sweet pumpkin at the market and made a pumpkin, orange & ginger soup for lunch. Yummy.
Next up is a wet rub that will have orange rind, garlic, piri-piri, herbs, olive oil and who knows what else that I plan to plaster on a nice chunk of pork. I fear that I have turned into a mad woman as far as savoury citrus is concerned. Thank goodness I don’t have an oven or I’d be making all kinds of savoury biscuits and breads too.
I can hardly wait until Mr. Frutas completes his plans to offer small group tours through his citrus grove. It’ll be a delight for me to send people in his direction, knowing that he and his Dad will be as gracious and informative with others as they were with me. And who knows how many more Canucks will get the pleasure of picking their first citrus fruit right off the tree.