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Mail-order citrus is like having sunshine delivered to your door

For an East Coast citrus enthusiast, visiting a California farmers’ market in the winter is an exercise in ecstasy and envy. Here are 4 producers to check out.

A selection of citrus from Rincon Tropics
A selection of citrus from Rincon TropicsRead moreRincon Tropics

There are more than 100 varieties of citrus in the world, of which only the most durable commonly journey to our neck of the woods. Unfair. For an East Coast citrus enthusiast, visiting a California farmers’ market in the winter is an exercise in ecstasy and envy.

Mandarinquats again?” a jaded Santa Monican might utter, as one suppresses the urge to hurl a pomelo. Fortunately, digitally savvy farms with an assist from the U.S. Postal Service can deliver a vibrant, diverse citrus experience right to your door, burning through the winter gloom like headlights in a fog.

These shippable fruits don’t come cheap, but as renowned food writer (and mail-order citrus frontman) Mark Bittman recently told me, “If you like citrus, you’ll do anything you can afford to get your hands on it.”

Bhumi Growers

The carbon cost of shipping citrus is an undeniable bitter note. If only kumquat, finger limes, sudachi, yuzu, and calamansi could grow locally. Well, they can, if you happen to have a giant biogas-powered greenhouse like Vivek and Seema Malik, the financiers-turned-farmers behind Bhumi Growers in Florence. “It started as a hobby,” Seema says. “We became citrus growers by accident.”

Nearly 20 years after potting their first yuzu seeds in their living room, the couple tends a movable container orchard of thousands of trees representing 16 citrus varieties. Most of their clients are chefs (Philly’s Nok Suntaranon and Nick Elmi, and Scott Anderson of Elements in Princeton), but they ship to at-home acid lovers, too. From November to March, the harvest changes almost weekly, with snackable, explosively sweet-and-sour Nagami, Meiwa, and Centennial kumquats all currently available through February. $17.99/pound + shipping;

Bi-Rite x Bittman CA Citrus Experience Box

The TSA agents scanning Mark Bittman’s carry-ons at San Francisco Airport circa 2015 would have found a trove of Meyer lemons. He had a tree at his house in Berkeley and would routinely bring hauls to New York. “When I moved back East, I wondered how we were ever going to get Meyer lemons again,” he says.

This question led to a citrus-shipping partnership, now in its third season, between Bittman and Bi-Rite, the hallowed Bay Area market. Representing 20 sustainable California growers, the CA Citrus Experience Box changes throughout various micro-seasons within winter: Easy-peel Satsumas stepping in for bumpy makrut limes, smooth navels switch-hitting for scarlet bloods, etc. “It’s like getting a CSA from California farmers while living on the East Coast,” Bittman says. “Eating this citrus out of hand is just so joyful.” $80 + shipping for ten to 12 pounds;

Rincon Tropics Seasonal Mixed Fruit Box

What sixth-generation farmer Nick Brown’s great-great-grandfather did for lima beans — “He patented the variety that became the industry and world standard,” Brown says — he wants to do for passion fruits. “A lot of people have had passion fruit-flavored things but not had the real thing. It’s not in the everyday American memory catalog.”

While the next harvest is a couple months away, the current Rincon Tropics mixed box compensates with delicately thin-skinned Bearss limes, Pixie tangerines, colossal Eureka lemons that make incredible curd, and more. The fruit is all grown on his parents’ and neighbors’ farms, where the guiding principle is low intervention. Brown started shipping last year when the pandemic prevented him from meeting his customers at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market and only made the business website-official in September. “Before it was [Instagram] DMs for every single order, which when I think back, was absolutely insane.” Last month, more than 1,200 customers around the country placed orders. Starting at $43 + shipping for four to seven pounds;

Frog Hollow Farm

Spread across 280 acres of Brentwood, Calif., farmland dedicated to regenerative agriculture, Frog Hollow is a longstanding player in the mail-order citrus game. Al and Becky Courchesne have been growing fruit organically since 1989, and their menu is large. The citrus selection is currently a la carte, and particularly shines in the orange and orange-adjacent department: Moro and Sanguinelli bloods, Minneola tangelos, Cara Caras, Navels, Kishu and Tango mandarins, even cosmetically imperfect but delicious fruit for juicing, sold at nearly half-price. $17.49 (juicing oranges) and $27.99 (all others) + shipping for three pounds;