I wanted this winter break to be special for the kids. Although I knew that I would spend much of the time working (I am in the middle of copyediting the manuscript), it was important to me to schedule activities that were both fun and educational. That is when it occurred to me that I should take them to visit a citrus grove. After all, we live in Florida, the land of citrus, no?
I thought of how excited Jon and Miren would be to pick some of their favorite fruit right of the tree and learn a bit more about where we live. I knew they would.
Then, my next question was… “where do we go?”
I didn’t know where to begin my search. I asked around and searched on the internet. How hard could it be to find a citrus grove in the land of mail-order citrus gift-boxes. I called and called, but got nowhere. It seems things have really changed in the last few years in the citrus industry. After the devastating freezes they had in the mid 80s, many small growers lost most of their groves and since then, citrus-growing has become much more industrialized.
“We don’t allow people to walk the groves for liability reasons, but you can visit our packing house” is the answer I heard the most. “But we really want to see the trees and pick the fruit! Why would I want to see a packing facility?” is what I kept repeating.
I got no answers. Until the day I picked up a bag of organic oranges at Whole Foods.
I saw the name Uncle Matt’s under a big sign that said “Local”. Right then and there, I googled them on my phone. I was so excited to find an organic citrus grower not far from where we live. I sent them an email as soon as I got home to see if we could come visit and shortly I received an email back saying “It would be our pleasure!”
Just like that, we planned a trip to visit Uncle Matt’s.
We decided to make a day trip out of it. Invited my friend Karen and Jon’s best friend Daisy along for the ride. C. even took the day off from work to join us.
The kids were beaming. Cool, sunny winters-day.
When we arrived, the entire McLean clan who is the family behind Uncle Matt’s greeted us. Benny McLean, the patriarch, comes from a long line of citrus-growing Floridians. Who else would have such great insight into citrus farming but him. Matt McLean, Benny’s son and CEO of Uncle Matt’s (the business was named after him) explained to us the genesis of it all and the importance of organic practices.
Annemarie and her daughters and nephew joined us as well. Daisy, Jon, and Miren were excited to find new friends and share the experience with them. The McLean children are used to being in the fields and working the land and that is very obvious. They are naturals.
Benny gave us a thorough explanation of how the citrus industry in Florida has evolved. He explained to us how they address the issues of winter freezes, insects, and disease under organic practices. He spoke about the trees’ immune systems and then, just like that, I wanted to cry out of joy. Maybe because my own autoimmune disorders, anytime a doctor, farmer, or individual addresses the importance of strengthening our bodies ability to defend from disease, it gets to me. I get it. Benny’s words resonated. I loved learning about how wasps are used to fight disease and how wasps live on their property pollenating these tiny white flowers that in conventional farming would be considered weeds and immediately removed.
They have created a harmonious eco-system and we could sense it. There is peace at Uncle Matt’s.
The fruit was outrageously sweet – candy-like and warm from the sun.
We all picked from the trees. The sweetest red navels, Hamlins, honeybells, pink grapefruit, gigantic pommelos, and lemons. The tangelos were still ripening and so were the Valencia oranges. They also grow avocados, blueberries, and peaches. We even spotted some blossoms on the peach trees.
Our kids and the McLean kids bonded over picking fruit.
Such a beautiful sight.
As we were walking around, my mind was spinning thinking about what I was going to make with all this beautiful fruit. The first thing was a fresh salad. Don’t we all crave citrus salads after all the holidays? I know I do.
Simple lobster and citrus salad with tarragon-oil dressing and spicy radishes.
We played at the farm until nightfall. The kids were happy from a day in the sun — in nature. And I was completely inspired by passion and dedication from those who see beyond a mere business and create a healthy and sustainable lifestyle for their family and community.
Back at home, we have been enjoying fresh citrus every morning. A mix of red navel and honeybell is Jon’s favorite. How could it not be right? Just like candy.
Even though it is winter and yes, it finally got down to the 40s, I still craved sorbet. I made pommelo, hibiscus, and vanilla bean popsicles that we had outside under the sun. It felt good.
Also made vanilla and cardamom natillas with sliced of citrus and ladyfingers using all the leftovers from recipe testing.
So thank you Uncle Matt’s and the McLean family for your time and generosity. We will never forget it.
And to all of you, happy 2012!
Pommelo, Hibiscus, and Vanilla Bean Sorbet
makes 10 pops
3 cups (750 ml) freshly-squeezed pommelo juice
1/2 cup (100 g) natural cane sugar
2 teaspoons dry hibiscus leaves
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and seeds scraped
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup (60 ml) freshly-squeezed lemon juice
In a small saucepan, heat 1 cup (250 ml) of pomelo juice, sugar, hibiscus, vanilla bean and seeds, and salt over medium high heat until it comes to a boil and sugar has dissolved. Remove pot from heat and let it steep for 10 minutes. Strain it through a fine sieve and let the syrup cool for 10 minutes.
Mix the pommelo syrup with the remaining pommelo juice and lemon juice. Stir and refrigerate for 2 hours.
Churn in your ice cream machine for a few minutes until it starts to freeze and thicken, but not fully frozen. Pour into the popsicle molds, insert a wooden stick, and freeze until solid.
Lobster and Citrus Salad
1 (14-ounce or 400 g) lobster tail
1 medium pink grapefruit, peeled and segmented
1 medium hamlin or navel orange, peeled and segmented
1 medium red navel or blood orange, peeled and segmented
4 radishes, thinly sliced
4 green onions, thinly sliced
1 cup (15 g) watercress
2 tablespoons finely chopped pistachios
1/4 cup (60 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh tarragon leaves
1 tablespoon grapefruit juice
Salt and pepper
Cook the lobster in a pot of salted boiling water for 13 to 15 minutes. Remove and let it cool until you can handle it. Remove flesh from shell and cut into bite size pieces.
In a bowl toss together the lobster pieces, grapefruit, oranges, radishes, green onions, watercress and pistachios.
In a mortar and pestle, bruise the tarragon with a pinch of coarse salt. Slowly add the olive oil while stirring. Pour the oil over the salad, followed by the grapefruit juice. Season with salt and pepper and toss. Top with microgreens. Serve immediately while lobster is still warm.