A couple weeks ago I had the chance to go on a farm tour at the Sumo Citrus orchards and learn all about how this sweet and juicy fruit is grown + harvested. Although it’s warbled skin and large pores might make you think it’s a tough little guy, they’re actually incredible fragile fruits and require a lot of care and tenderness throughout every step of their lives, from seed to table. They have the most incredibly sweet flavor, that tastes like the juiciest orange you’ve ever had, with a hint of floral and honey notes. I decided to bring out this honey note by making a simple citrus agua fresca with a lot of Sumo Citrus juice, and a little lime juice + honey. It’s like a flavor burst of summertime in a glass (to quote Jeremy “mmmmm it tastes like a melted creamsicle”), and is the perfect thing to get you through the end of winter to brighter days ahead. I have the citrus agua fresca recipe at the end of the blog post, but first I want to tell you a little more about this beautiful little fruit and its very special journey.
Sumo Citrus is a seedless mandarin that has the sweetness of a navel orange combined with the easy-to-peel skin of a tangelo. They’re only in season January through April, so now is the peak time to enjoy this sweet, fragrant fruit! You can find out where to get it here (it’s available at Whole Foods, fyi). It starts with a seed, which is sprouted + grown in a big beautiful greenhouse in the central valley of California. Because the root stock of the Sumo Citrus plant is vulnerable to disease, they graft the young sumo citrus tree onto another citrus variety’s rootstock that’s much heartier, and each one is done by hand. You can peek at it being gently taped together above. After this, the trees keep growing inside the greenhouse until they’re big and strong enough to be transplanted outside.
That takes a bit of time, though, and to make the most efficient use of space inside the greenhouse, the little trees are kept on a wheeled trolly system that allows them to be moved around with ease. In order to create this trolley system, though, 40,000 wheels had to be installed on tracks inside the greenhouse (yikes!!) The folks at Sumo Citrus wanted to make a difference with this task, though, and worked with a local organization to hire developmentally disabled people (who want to work but due to their disability normally have an 85% unemployment rate) to undertake this simple-but-tedious task. They did an amazing job, and now the greenhouse is one of the most space-efficient ones in the US.
Once the trees are planted outside, they soak up all the California sun and begin to grow bigger and bigger. Because the fruit needs direct sunlight to develop sugars inside, the trees are meticulously pruned as they grow to keep the middle part open to help sunlight get in, almost like the shape of a vase. To help keep damaging insects at bay, Sumo Citrus uses natural solutions like dispersing beneficial insects that prey on the not-so-citrus-friendly ones. When the fruit is ripe and ready, each one is picked by hand and loaded into a small crate. Unlike navel oranges and other citrus varieties which are loaded into 800-pound containers, Sumo Citrus have very delicate skin and need to be kept in smaller, lighter, individual harvesting crates. The reason for this is multi-fold—the many scent glands on the surface of the fruit’s skin, which look like little pores, are part of what makes the fruit so fragrant and flavorful, but they also make it more fragile. It’s tender juicy flesh is another reason why they can’t hold the weight that harder citrus can. So off they go, little crate by little crate, from the field to the processing house a few miles away.
Once they’re there, they get a gentle but thorough salt water rinse and each one is sorted by hand *multiple* times to ensure only the best ones make it through (there’s even a process where all the fruits go under a black light in the assembly line since any damaged bits show up very well in there). If you’re concerned about waste, do not worry, the wonky ones get separated and made into orange juice, so they get put to use, too! There’s also a crazy machine that analyzes each one and knows the sugar content of every single little fruit. Oh! And they have a barcode system for each tree that goes down the system to each box of Sumo Citrus that’s shipped, so wherever the Sumo Citrus goes, they can track 1 fruit all the way back to the exact tree it grew on, who harvested it, who sorted it, etc. (it’s like the ultimate quality-control system!)
Each fruit has been tended to since day 1 of it’s journey to our tables, and you can taste it in every sweet + refreshing bite. It’s also wonderful that they’re able to grow them here in the US, so we don’t have to worry about shipping them as far, and we can support local farmers who are deeply passionate about what they do and put so much care + attention into creating the best food possible. I highly recommend grabbing a bushel while they’re still around, and making a citrus agua fresca or two while you’re at it!
This post was made in partnership with Sumo Citrus but all opinions are my own, per usual!
Sumo Citrus Agua Fresca
This bright and refreshing beverage tastes like a burst of summer in a glass. It's perfect for enjoying the height of the winter citrus season and tiding you over to the sunnier days ahead.
- 1 pound Sumo Citrus
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
- Cut the Sumo Citrus in half across the equator. Hold one half of the fruit over a medium bowl in your left hand, and use a fork to gently poke the fleshy center of the fruit with your right hand. Squeeze the fruit with your left hand while twisting the fork with your right hand to burst as many little juice cells as possible and get all the juice out of the fruit. Don't be afraid to get as much pulp as possible in there, too, since you'll be pureeing it in a blender. 1 pound of Sumo Citrus will yield about 1 cup of pulpy juice.
- Once all the Sumo Citrus are juiced, pour their juice, the lime juice, and the honey into a blender. Puree at medium high speed until completely smooth, about 30 seconds. Serve immediately, or refrigerate to enjoy later on. If you refrigerate it, some separation will occur so just give it a little stir again before consuming. Makes 1 serving.