Chilly days and falling leaves herald more than turkey talk in our house, where it’s all about oranges.
Not just any oranges, mind you. Our four year-old daughter, Emi, devours the small, seedless, easy-to-peel citrus fruit known as mandarins like they’re candy.
My husband recently brought home some supermarket oranges with thick skins that were more yellow than orange and ultimately flavorless.
“This is why kids won’t eat fruits and vegetables,” I complained, remembering the big box of locally-grown satsumas I’d bought at last year’s Mountain Mandarin Festival in Auburn.
Tangy, sweet and dripping with juice, they were the best oranges I’d ever eaten.
So after some Internet research and a flurry of emails, Emi and I headed for Miller’s Citrus Grove in Placer County for a morning of mandarin picking with friends.
While we’d considered this weekend’s Mountain Mandarin Festival, which begins Friday and runs through Sunday, we decided a day in the country was better suited for our seven kids.
A U-pick farm complete with friendly goats
Curt Miller and his family have been growing mandarin varietals such as satsumas and clementines on the rolling hills of Penryn since 1979, when they bought the orchard from a Japanese American family.
Located about 30 miles east of Sacramento, the family-run farm is mere minutes from the bustling shopping centers and housing developments of Roseville and Rocklin, although you’d never know it.
Miller’s is situated along English Colony Way, a country road lined with palm trees, where several orchards make up Placer County’s Mandarin Trail.
Welsh settlers who established the town of Penryn planted the first mandarin trees in Placer County in the 1880s, and by the 1950s local growers were beginning to operate fully-equipped processing and packing facilities that supplied these sweet citrus fruit to area grocers.
Today, Placer County boasts more than 30 mandarin growers in Loomis, Penryn, Newcastle, Lincoln and Auburn.
Miller’s Citrus Grove is open to the public seven days a week. Friendly farm animals such as goats, llamas, a donkey and miniature horse make for an ideal day in the country with kids.
If you call ahead, you can also pick your own mandarins.
Curt Miller told us he only recently began exploring the u-pick market after receiving several requests from families. He kindly arranged for the kids to get their own, five-quart souvenir buckets to store their harvest.
Miller provided a couple of pruning shears and demonstrated how to cut the mandarins from the trees, leaving only a miniscule stub. If the skin is pierced or torn during picking, the orange will quickly spoil, he explained.
Our gang of city kids spent several delightful minutes tossing mandarins to hungry goats before picking up their buckets and making their way over a creek and up a hillside to the orchard.
It was still early in the season, so we had to hunt around a little for the really ripe fruit. Our kids ranged from two to four years of age, and when they’re that young, they do more eating than picking, leaving the bulk of the work to the grown-ups.
“We had some kids up here that were picking for a long time,” Miller said. “They were gone so long, I went to check on them and the kids were just rolling down the hill.”
Season lasts through January
We left Miller’s Citrus Grove with a $10 pail of sweet, nutritious mandarins, a souvenir bucket and childhood memories you can’t put a price on.
Mandarin season in Placer County typically begins in mid-November and lasts through January. It’s best to call ahead, especially if you’ve got a large group. It’s also a good idea to bring your own shears.
If you’re not into picking your own fruit, check out the Mountain Mandarin Festival this weekend at the Gold Country Fairgrounds in Auburn.
Every year at the start of the season, growers put on the three-day festival, offering tastings, cooking demonstrations, crafts, entertainment, kids' activities and of course, plenty of mandarins.
There’s also the upcoming Mandarin Orchard Days Dec 1-2.
Participating Placer County growers will open their orchards to the public for tours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. In addition to mandarins, several orchards will be selling other winter fruits and veggies as well as mandarin-related products such as syrups, marinades and oils.
For more information and a map of area orchards, go to www.placergrown.org or www.mountainmandarins.com.