Saturday, April 30, 2016

What the heck is that? Cara cara oranges

Some of my favorite fruit stands are modest in their sales approach. They never display cut fruit, however beautiful or remarkable. Or they cut open only the most dinged up fruit, as if to say, "Ha! Not rotten after all!" Most use only the simplest terms, maybe grudgingly acknowledging the presence of seeds or some other feature that would engender buyer's remorse in the unwitting customer. Under this system, sweet, extraordinarily fragrant muscat grapes from Italy might be labeled "Grapes," or "Grapes (Seeds)."

So I take notice when a seemingly commonplace piece of fruit gets more attentive treatment. Cara Cara oranges have made this leap: they're labeled "Cara Cara orange" with pride.

Not that these oranges don't deserve the primo treatment.
Cara Cara oranges look like regular "orange" oranges on the outside, but inside, they're special. Their flesh is deeply red, comparable to the darkest pink grapefruits like Star Ruby (and much rubier than standard pink grapefruits). Unlike blood oranges, which have red speckles on their rinds, Cara Caras keep their ruby secret to themselves.

Cara Cara oranges are navel oranges of uncertain parentage (a term I associate mainly with Donald Duck's nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie) whose unusual features are considered a mutation. There is no scandalous liaison between orange and pink grapefruit, or at least nothing that has anything to do with Cara Caras.
Yup, that's a navel all right.
Their red color is caused by lycopene, the phytochemical and pigment that also gives tomatoes and pink grapefruits their lovely color. Lycopene is "temperature neutral," so Cara Cara oranges have a consistent color regardless of their growing temperature. (Blood oranges, another vividly colored citrus fruit, get their color from anthocyanin, and need cool weather conditions to become fully red-fleshed.) Cara Caras get their catchy name from the area in which they were first discovered, Hacienda Cara Cara in Venezuela. After their discovery, Cara Caras were brought by US citrus growers to groves in  Florida and California.

I enjoy lurking on botany websites, so I've learned that selecting the wrong bud to cultivate could result in a boring old orange-colored fruit and the wrong twig could produce fruit with striped rind. Ah, Nature! Always messing with our plans for uniformity and predictability.
Cara Caras are also getting a name for their good flavor and fragrance.  One enthusiast writes longingly of the oranges' "subtle rosewater scent." The produce-promoting website Fruits & Veggies - More Matters, promises, "You'll experience hints of cherry and notes of rose and blackberry."

These over-the-top descriptions remind me of the quickly mumbled descriptions I would offer customers when I worked at a coffee store - "Yes, undertones of chocolate and cinnamon, with hints of leather and bourbon." I hoped my mumbling would ensure that no one else, except possibly some credulous customers, would hear my stream-of-consciousness commentary. As the days progressed, my choices for hints and undertones grew ever more baroque and ridiculous.
Sadly, I detect no hints of cherry - my very favorite fruit - in Cara Caras. They taste like oranges, not berries. But that's okay. Cara Cara oranges are great on their own terms, alone or part of a rainbow of citrus.