Last Thursday I had the extraordinary and somewhat life changing (oh yes, I like to be dramatic) privilege of visiting the UC Riverside Citrus Variety Collection. I didn’t realize it until arriving but this was the first time the collection had been open for this type of viewing in at least 20 years, if not much longer. The curator of the collection passionately greeted us and told us about the history of the collection from its start as a citrus experiment station in 1907. The various faculty and staff, which currently numbers around 140, have spent the last 100+ years working on breeding, pest management and flavor development in service to being a resource for citrus diversity through research and education.
The collection spans over 22 acres and has over 1100 varieties of citrus with at least 4 trees of each type. Let us pause and just take that in for a moment.
1100+ varieties of citrus.
My lips are tingling just thinking about it. I remember a few years ago when I started documenting the fruit I eat. If you had asked me then to guess how many types of citrus there are in the world, I probably would have guessed somewhere around 100 and that would have been me trying to impress you with my vast knowledge.
The day was filled with various speakers along with tours through the orchard focusing on some of the more unique items in the collection. There were many types of mandarins that I hadn’t seen or heard of before, but I wasn’t particularly surprised by this. There was really only one piece of fruit that completely wowed me: the Bael Fruit. It has an extremely hard shell that we had to step on in order to break open. The inside was tragically gelatinous with a robust mango smell. Against my better judgement, I licked my fingers. I would say it mostly tasted like nothing but I didn’t get to really take it in before someone shouted, “I think that’s poisonous.” Um…well ok then. (Turns out it is not at all poisonous and is used for medicinal purposes in Asia on a regular basis but I didn’t actually know that until about 10 minutes ago.) So that was a fun experience.
I also got to see another fingerlime. I was hoping to see some of the more vibrantly colored varieties but they were mostly green. This one did have a hint of pink, which was a great surprise.
One way they distilled down the large number of fruit to try was an exhibit delightfully entitled, “Meet the Parents”. Various mandarins and grapefruits were set out on a table for tasting. Then there were lines indicating crosses and the new citrus it produced. I probably tried around 20 new types of mandarin that I hadn’t had before, which I shoved in to my mouth in about 10 minutes as I didn’t realize the table would be out all day. My instincts to acquire and consume new fruit just took over. I’m glad you weren’t there to see it. Not pretty. Not pretty at all. Let’s just say one lesson of the day is that I should never have access to poisonous fruit. My policy appears to be “eat first, think later.”
So it was a great day and I have been thinking ever since I left about why exactly I couldn’t stop talking about it. I think I called four different people on my way home to yammer on about all the fun things I saw and people I met. I remember one particular friend laughing adoringly and saying, “So you would say you had a good time then?”
Yes. I had a good time. And among everything I already listed, I think ultimately the reason I enjoyed it so much comes down to the same reason I write Fruit Maven at all: It made my world simultaneously bigger and smaller. It expanded what I believed to be true about this world – the infinite uniqueness and beauty of it all. The orange on my counter that I have eaten so many times on so many days in my life is no longer just an orange. It is now the entrance point to a world of over 1100 different flavors and colors and textures. That orange is also something so simple, so organic and basic and sustaining. I don’t mean to get overly mushy, but I was standing in the middle of this long row of trees, looking at a huge group of bright yellow citrus laying on the ground and thinking, “This is it. This is real life. THIS is being alive.”