The forgotten citrus
If you go hunting for recipes, facts or information about citrus you will find endless references to lemons, oranges, limes and even grapefruits. But what about the poor mandarin?
I am a firm lover of all citrus. Lemons are an essential ingredient in the kitchen, limes make my favourite Sri Lankan pickle, ruby grapefruits are an excellent breakfast and a glass of freshly squeezed blood orange juice is a delight. The mandarin, however, holds a very special place in my heart. It could almost be the perfect fruit to eat, with an ideal size to hold in your hand, skin that peels effortlessly, an intoxicating scent and segments that easily part, ready to pop into your mouth.
The mandarin is also revered in China, for their New Year’s Eve celebrations. Mandarins are thought to represent abundance and prosperity. They are used as decorations and, along with red envelopes filled with lucky money, they are given as a symbolic gift for wealth and good fortune.
Mandarin trees are an evergreen thought to have evolved in Asia. Named for the imperial court in China, they are also sometimes called tangerines. This other name came about because the fruit spread through Europe via Tangier in Morocco. Mandarins grown there have a particularly special intense flavour and smell and the fragrant oils made from the blossoms of the citrus trees in Morocco are quite renowned.
Most citrus is grown from grafts as they can be difficult to grow from cuttings and also as a way to protect against disease and to keep them true to type. Citrus needs a certain amount of cold weather to develop the colour and a certain amount of heat to help the production of sugars and flavours in the fruit. All citrus fruits develop a wax coating on their skin as they grow as a natural way to protect themselves. Interestingly in commercial growing this coating is washed off in production and then a new wax coat is put on.
Mandarins are the most delicate of the citrus as the fruit is prone to sun damage and the skin easily bruised. However, they actually have a surprisingly long season in Australia, with the first starting to appear in March and certain varieties still available until December. Their peak time, though, is from May to August.
All in the family
The world of citrus is a mixture of hybrids, all of which stem from four ancestors: citron, pomelo, papeda and the mandarin, which is the only original sweet variety. Citrus readily interbreeds so over the ages both naturally and purposefully we have ended up with a dazzling array of different fruits – for example, sweet oranges are mostly mandarin with a little pomelo and a lemonade fruit is a mix of a sweet orange and a lemon.
The long season of the mandarin allows for a lovely wave of different flavours. The first of the season is the imperial, a variety that was first grown here in Australia. It has a loose skin, generally few seeds and a nice sweet, rounded flavour. The daisy is another early season mandarin, usually larger with firm skin and a more round, orange-like shape. This is a very juicy variety and has a refreshing, slightly tart flavour. Clementines are one of my favourites; usually smaller in size and quite firm, they have a great balance of sweet and tart and are often candied whole and used as an accompaniment to cheese. Also common are murcotts, a sweet mandarin with a honey-like flavour and scent. One of the last to appear in the season is the sweet and juicy afourer.
Sweet and tart
The variety within mandarin types makes it hard to pin them down with any one overriding flavour. We can say, though, that they have a lemon–like tartness without being as sharp, the sugariness of an orange but in a more subtle and floral way, and the sharp sweetness of the grapefruit but with a woodier note.
The common thread that all citrus share is the intense smell and flavour you get from the oils in the skin. Use mandarin skin in warming winter braised meat dishes; it matches well with Asian flavours and sweet spices. The peel can also be used to infuse milks to flavour custards and ice creams or candied to give that delightful citrus bittersweet flavour. The skin is also used in both Chinese and Ayurvedic medicines.
You can also substitute mandarins into recipes where you find oranges, such as a mandarin marmalade. In times of plenty, when there are excess mandarins, juice them to drink or freeze or even reduce the juice to leave you with the base of a homemade mandarin cordial. Keep the skin and dry it out – dried peel can be used whole and added into braises or custards to infuse the flavour. You could also grind it up to make a flavoured salt or use it like you would a spice.
Like other citrus, mandarin also goes well with chocolate and I particularly like it paired with anise–like flavours such as fennel, licorice and star anise. Charring a mandarin is also a good way to highlight the flavour. Try it in a negroni: add ice to the glass, then some charred mandarin, giving it a little squeeze, and then the alcohol.
Cook the recipes
Photography by Sharyn Cairns. Styling by Lee Blaylock. Food preparation by Tiffany Page.
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