Mandarin magic

Locally grown satsumas, coming to a produce section near you

Orange you glad Dawit Zeleke and Cori Ong grow satsuma mandarins?

Orange you glad Dawit Zeleke and Cori Ong grow satsuma mandarins?

Photo courtesy of Dawit Zeleke

Julie Cross directs the sampling, cooking and wine-tasting classes at the Davis Food Co-op.

Easterners have their Clementines, sweetly fragrant members of the tangerine family. You East Coast transplants can have my share: As far as I’m concerned, Clementines pale in comparison to their West Coast cousin, the satsuma. Grown in Capay and Gold Country, satsumas are tender, sweet and juicy, the absolute pinnacle of the citrus family.

Satsumas taste all the better because they area available for such a short time—November through January in the very best of years. They can’t be stored, and no pale imitations inundate us from far countries. Satsumas are seasonal eating at its very best.

Dawit Zeleke of Capay Satsuma Mandarins has been growing satsumas for the last 10 years, but the history of his orchard reaches back 47 years (to when the first trees, still bearing fruit, were planted). Cultivating the soil goes back for generations in his family, which owned farmland in Ethiopia. Any way you look at it, Zeleke is deeply invested in both his 12-acre farm and the ecosystem that supports it.

As do most farmers these days, Zeleke has a second job, in his case Central Valley and Mountains regional director with the Nature Conservancy. He feels strongly that his two jobs support one another: Farming gives him access to a community that is at the center of the conservation movement, and his conservation work gives him the space in which to farm.

Capay Satsuma mandarins are available at the Davis Farmers Market and Chico Natural Foods. Visitors to the farm are welcome: For details, or to order satsumas shipped to your entire holiday shopping list, visit the Web site at

Of course, those aren’t the only places you can get fresh, locally grown mandarins, which you’ll currently find in abundance everywhere from your local supermarket’s produce section to farmers’ markets throughout the Sacramento region. To choose the best satsuma, look for a deep orange skin with no green tints. While you’ll get oddly giant fruit from commercial growers, the best of the best are smaller, around the size of a billiard ball. Unlike most citrus, the skin should feel loose and the fruit a bit yielding.

While satsumas are perfect for eating out of hand (even the youngest child can peel them, as proven with a recent troop of Daisy Scouts who happily peeled a whole bag after their tour of the Davis Food Co-op), they also lend themselves to almost any citrus application: fruit salad, compote and the classic Southern ambrosia. For a lot of elegance with a little work, try chocolate coated satsuma slices.

Chocolate Mandarin Slices

many satsuma mandarins
your favorite dark chocolate

Peel satsumas. Carefully remove all strings and excess pith. Eat any slices that you ruin. Dry oranges with a paper or kitchen towel. (Don’t skip this step—it’s crucial!)

Melt dark chocolate in a shallow bowl in the microwave or double boiler. Lay out a sheet of tin foil or parchment. Dip each slice in chocolate about two-thirds the length of the slice. Let excess chocolate drip off, then place on foil to harden. When all slices are hard, eat them or refrigerate in a single layer, covered, until needed.