The second in a series of columns co-written by Tony and Karen Russo, a father-daughter team and former owners of Russo’s in Watertown.
In between packing and trucking fruit on his farm in California’s Central Valley, Greg Haury has been fielding calls almost nonstop for one of this season’s most prized possessions: the pomelo.
“I’ve been getting two or three phone calls at a time with buyers asking for the big pomelos this week,” Haury said.
For pomelo growers, the days and weeks before Lunar New Year are like the Super Bowl. That’s because these giant citrus fruits are one of the most popular gifts for the holiday. Citrus is believed to bring good luck and prosperity to its recipients.
Haury Farms grows about 60 acres of Chandler pomelos, a variety with a light green-to-yellow skin and a bright, beautiful, pink interior. They pack and ship them all across the United States, and have sent them as far as New Zealand, Australia, and the United Arab Emirates.
This week, for the first time ever, Haury had customers driving hundreds of miles to his family farm in Visalia to buy pomelos — one customer even rented a van and drove 30 hours round-trip from Seattle to load up.
California’s recent storms may have played a role in the fruit frenzy because it cannot be picked in the rain. To put it simply: Demand is very high and supply is very low.
Pomelos, also spelled pummelos, are originally from Southeast Asia. They are the largest citrus fruit, often the size of a cantaloupe. One farmer told us some are as large as volleyballs, although we have never seen that ourselves.
We began to notice this giant citrus in the New England Produce Market only about 25 years ago.
Everybody who likes citrus likes pomelos. Their flavor is similar to a grapefruit but not as bitter.
To eat a pomelo takes a little bit of extra work because you cannot peel them. You must cut through the thick skin and remove the membrane. It takes a certain amount of dexterity and patience, but it’s worth it because the fruit is delicious.
We tried one particularly pleasant variety, the Tahitian, grown by farmer Arthur Futterman on his small farm in Indio, Calif. It tasted like a lemonade slushy. Futterman likes it so much, he won’t even sell them.
“I keep them for myself,” he said.
Lunar New Year was a significant citrus event at our store so we always ordered extra shipments of all citrus items.
In some cases, we ordered five times more product than usual, and for certain items, 50 times more. We hoped to meet the demands of customers, including one local who regularly bought at least 20 cases of citrus fruit for gifts (which translates to more than 500 individual pieces of fruit).
At C-Market in Boston last week, there were seven varieties and sizes of pomelos, including large ones wrapped in red netting and grown in China. It was the first time we had seen Chinese-grown pomelos sold in a Boston market. Alongside them were smaller pomelos, wrapped in paper decorated with colorful cat drawings and a message written in Chinese characters: “Be prosperous for the coming year!”
Just down the aisle, Rachel Li, 32, carefully selected mandarins with stems and leaves.
“The stems are lucky and we choose the best ones with the leaves,” she said. “We use them as decorations and bring them to our family for good luck.”
Li will enjoy a New Year celebration by eating dinner with her family.
“It’s like American Thanksgiving,” she explained.
Another popular fruit for the holiday is the kumquat. At C-Market, it was sold out.
Kumquats are the opposite of pomelos. They are the smallest citrus, and unlike the pomelo’s tough exterior, the kumquat has a uniquely edible, sweet skin. However, not everyone knows how to eat them.
“They look at it and think about it and think ‘What am I gonna do about that?’” said Dennis Jensen. “I have to educate them.”
Jensen owns Seaview Ranch in the Coachella Valley, where he grows some of the best kumquats in the country.
Kumquats are the easiest citrus to eat. No cutting or peeling necessary. Just pop them into your mouth — skin, seeds, and all.
Jensen and his wife, Roya, walked us through their citrus fields, including more than 20 acres of Nagami kumquats, the more popular of the two varieties grown in the United States.
“The kumquat shelf life isn’t like a typical orange,” explained Jensen. “It’s probably less than two weeks after it gets off the tree. Then the retailer has to get it out.”
At our store, we could not keep up with demand for the kumquats. They have a short season and are difficult to find.
Near the rows of kumquats, Jensen showed us his grove of Oro Blancos. Technically, they are a cross between white grapefruit and pomelos, but we always think of them as a variety of pomelo.
We love Oro Blancos because they have a grapefruit flavor but are even juicier and sweeter than pomelos. They are not as well known and there are not as many grown, but we prefer them. Now is the season to eat them, so do not hesitate if you find them in your market.
Another seasonal specialty is the dragon fruit, a tropical fruit believed to bring luck for the new year.
At Ming Market in Boston, the store’s manager, Henry Zheng, 54, shows us his display, including the white dragon fruit, which he grew on his own farm in Florida.
Dragon fruit is arguably the prettiest fruit around, especially the pink variety, although we prefer the sweet flavor of the yellow. It might look intimidating, but do not be deterred. To choose one, select the ones that are not dented or bruised but are slightly soft like a peach. To consume, simply cut it like a kiwi: peel, slice in half, then cut into pieces.
In many homes, dragon fruit is served for dessert on Lunar New Year. It is prepared ahead of time and refrigerated.
Zheng recalls growing up in southern China, where he and his friends gave each other fruits for New Year’s.
“We would give gifts of fruit to each other. I would give it to my friend and then he would give it to me,” Zheng said. It was like exchanging Valentine’s Day cards. “And it would bring good luck to everyone.”