Fruitless search for perfect citrus

Fall is an odd time in Northern California. Looking out the window — a skateboarder shoots by in boardshorts and flip-flops nearly running over a young woman sporting a late-summer tan amply displayed in a bright pink tank top — it’s hard to believe it is actually autumn.

One source of confusion is citrus fruit.

Inevitably, someone will say “This mimosa doesn’t taste right” while another will ask, “Did you use fresh lime in this margarita?”

In “The Grapes of Wrath,” John Steinbeck uses oranges as a metaphor for the golden dream of California: “And in the south he saw the golden oranges hanging on the trees, the little golden oranges on the dark green trees.”

Steinbeck uses the theme again and again, drawing perhaps an analogy to the famous Golden Apples of the Hesperides, fetched by Hercules on his last labor and widely acknowledged by scholars to have been oranges and not apples.

But, even in the Golden State, some citrus is better than others. Two citrus fruits that are just not particularly good this time of year are limes and oranges. Sure, they are both available in abundance; they just don’t taste very good.

The orange people are most familiar with is the sweet orange, the most common of which are the navel and the Valencia. Sweet oranges are thought to be a hybrid of the mandarin and the pomelo and are the most cultivated tree fruit in the world. Officially, navels are a year-round fruit while the season for Valencias is nearly year-round, skipping November and December. But take it from someone who squeezes fresh juice practically daily — the next few months will only deliver weak, more yellow than orange, orange juice.

Instead one should look for tangerines, mandarins or even blood oranges, all in season now and sure to make a far better fall cocktail than standard orange juice. If your fresh-squeezed orange juice doesn’t taste sweet and delicious, then your screwdriver or mimosa ain’t gonna either.

As for the lime, or more correctly the Persian lime, November proves to be just as fruitless. This time of year it can take several limes to yield a few ounces of juice, and at 50 cents a lime that starts to get pricey. Oddly, the lime used in most “traditional cocktails” is barely even available now. The key lime, also known as the Mexican lime or the bartender’s lime, is virtually nonexistent at most grocery stores and farmers markets. I love when this new breed of neoclassical bartenders wax philosophic about classic cocktails and then proceed to use ingredients that didn’t even exist in that era. But I digress.

Persian limes are a seedless lime invented in 1895 but not popularized here until the midst of Prohibition. All those pre-Prohibition gimlets, Rickey’s, Collins and the like used an entirely different kind of fruit, a tarter more acidic fruit. And key limes have even a shorter season than Persians.

Perhaps that is why many older cocktail recipes interchange lemon and lime so readily. After all, in 1895 there was no Whole Foods down the street. Plus lemons truly are in season year-round.

All of this leads me to the following thoughts:

• “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” — Ecclesiastes 3:1

• In Spanish, there is no word for lime. Limes are limon verde, and lemons are limon amarillo, green lemons or yellow lemons. Lima is a relatively new slang word used in very little Mexican Spanish. So when an old south of the border cocktail recipe calls for limon, what kind is really anyone’s guess.

• “California is a fine place to live — if you happen to be an orange,” once quipped comedian Fred Allen, a contemporary and friend of John Steinbeck’s.

• Persian limes when fully ripe are actually yellow not green.

• Oranges belong to the hesperidium order of Linnaeus’ taxonomy.

• Colombian oranges are a lime green color, but are still called naranja, which is Spanish for orange (their flesh is orange).

• Meyer lemons are in season and their orangey-lemon flavor makes delightful cocktails.

• Bitterness is not necessarily confined to citrus fruit.