January means Honeybell harvest in Florida
By Paul Bruun, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
January 23, 2013
Fresh citrus lovers welcome January. That’s because the world’s sweetest and juiciest oranges become available this month. And there isn’t a moment to waste, because this once obscure fruit has suddenly become extra popular, even with its otherwise blase neighbors.
The new year’s first month may be crammed with frigid weather, cadres of resolutions and exciting NFL playoffs, but it also showcases the short but sweet Honeybell orange harvest. Believe me, there isn’t anything as juicy or delicious as a ripe Honeybell. Just remember to attack your first one over the kitchen sink or outside. Juice goes everywhere!
On the surface, the Bruunses’ recent escape to the eastern shores of Florida’s St. Lucie County masquerades as an extended warm weather fishing trip. However, few realize the enhanced bonus of being surrounded by widely coveted Indian River citrus, freshly caught fish, stone crab claws and the highest quality truck farm produce anywhere.
Traveling to and from launch ramps, we cover country roads, Interstate 95 and the always buzzing US 1, and are continually surrounded by orange- and grapefruit-crammed semitrailers hauling sun-ripened fruit from adjacent groves to packing houses near our Fort Pierce base. Several times a week, Jean races into our favorite non-tackle-store destination, Nelson Family Farms, in White City, to strengthen her arms by lugging home fresh squash, spinach, lettuce, handsome peppers, eggplant, mangos, potatoes (a major crop from St. Augustine), beans and juicy strawberries.
Until two weeks ago, we nabbed a fabulous selection of white and Ruby Red Indian River grapefruit. But my recent sentencing to a Lipitor-like statin drug designed to promote a healthier heart demanded that grapefruit be erased from my menu. Each Nelson trip happily allows additional refrigerator stockpiling of Honeybells, which we gobble at an alarming rate.
On a long-ago fishing trip with my childhood pal, Cary Kresge, we exited the Florida Turnpike at Fort Pierce and headed toward our Indian River destination. “You are going to love this,” Cary announced as he swung into the handy Boudrias Groves store and nabbed a jug of fresh Honeybell orange juice. Normally our citrus stand ventures were designed to obtain a healthful mixer for a jug of rum or vodka — just in case ugly weather cancelled fishing. The new juice — sans spirits — disappeared quickly.
That first Honeybell encounter forced me, upon returning to Cary’s house in Winter Park, to load up on these tangelo-grapefruit hybrids from the nearby Hollieanna Groves store to enjoy on my return drive to Wyoming. I’ve been a Honeybell addict ever since.
My father’s green thumb often got the better of me when I was a youngster in South Florida. Our yard was loaded with grapefruit and orange trees and a smattering of avocado, mango, calamandon and a Key lime bush. He enthusiastically added a variety of roses, which mom loved. His crowning glory was a dense patch of beefsteak tomatoes.
I was involved with pruning, cultivating, fertilizing, weeding and spraying this agricultural utopia. When wheelbarrows of fruit came ripe during fall and winter, I was dispatched to hospitals, nursing homes and friends’ offices with boxes of citrus and bags of hefty tomatoes.
For many years dad always drove station wagons that he used for newspaper as well as gardening work. One of these vehicles would be what I learned to drive and take to my driver’s exam. Once I began driving, my parents authorized use of the station wagon for certain weekend social activities. Tragically, I discovered that dad coincidentally made “emergency trips to the feed and garden store” right before my weekend dates. Cow manure was his fertilizer of choice, and no matter how hard I tried to air out the station wagon afterward it wasn’t a particularly pleasant ride to the movies or a drive-in restaurant.
On fishing trips either around Biscayne Bay or to the Everglades, I took three or four grapefruit along for lunch and snacking. Dad’s juicy white grapefruit were super sweet but bore many seeds. They were easier to devour by peeling and eating in quarters rather than sliced and sectioned in a traditional restaurant manner.
Beginning in the fifth grade, I joined dad on a variety of deer hunting trips in the Ocala National Forest and in the Everglades. These were two different styles of hunting in vastly different terrain. Ocala was 300 miles north of Miami and situated in the rolling red clay country of scrub, blackjack oaks, sand pine and maple. Criss-crossed by sandy fire roads, four-wheel drive and plenty of ground clearance were required on any hunting vehicle. The trip to Ocala took us along US 27, through a winter agricultural kingdom of truck farms, sugar cane around Lake Okeechobee and endless orange groves.
The old cabin where we stayed during hunting season was surrounded by citrus groves. Several of the guys, myself included, took oranges along to eat on our deer stands in the scrub. One of the fellows fell asleep after it warmed up, and some deer came in and ate the orange peels and orange pieces he had scattered around his stand. He never saw or heard them.
Native orange groves
In the flooded Big Cypress portion of the Everglades where we hunted on swamp buggies with giant oversized tires, there were frequent native orange grove remnants adjacent to abandoned Seminole Indian villages. Although these native oranges were seedy and sour, they were excellent for making pies and marinating meats. The popular Cuban Palomilla steak is soaked in sour orange juice before a quick grilling.
The Florida citrus business was developed through the creation of hybrid oranges brought from many lands. Florida soils wouldn’t host these trees, so a lot of grafting to native fruit trees was required.
That’s the story of the Honeybell tangelo, which was reportedly developed in the early 1900s with the crossing of a Duncan grapefruit with a Dancy tangerine. The easily recognizable crown makes this orange look like a bell, and the loose fitting skin is easy to peel with relatively little white pulp and very few seeds.
The Internet is crammed with outfits taking personal credit for Honeybells and offering them in a variety of options. For Christmas, I ordered my fruit-loving friend Cornelia Williams, newly relocated to Atlanta, a box of Honeybells as both a holiday and a house-warming gift. Cornelia has little need for any more home decorations or kitchen gadgets, but to be on the safe side I placed her order with the Lingle family at Hollieanna Groves in November. Cornelia was alerted that a holiday treat wouldn’t arrive until January.
Fortunately, my mother-in-law trusted me enough to be patient. Reports are that she is still savoring her juicy treasures.
Along with the other snowbirds, we rush into Nelson’s open air facility and snatch a bushel of Honeybells off the table. The parking lot is busy with folks loading BMW, Audi and Lexus trunks with similar loot. Our little van’s low-number Wyoming license plates get some curious stares as our fellow shoppers rush back to their condominiums to stand over the sink, stare at the ocean and enjoy the sweetest orange in the world.
Trout Unlimited event Jan. 30
Jeff Currier, renowned artist, angler and explorer, will present “Fly Fishing the World Without Any Money” at 6 p.m. on Jan. 30 at Alpine Wines in Driggs, Idaho, for the Teton Valley Trout Unlimited gathering. Appetizers, a cash bar, door prizes and live music will follow. Contact Boots Allen (firstname.lastname@example.org) for information.
Paul Bruun writes weekly on his adventures and misadventures in the great outdoors.