On the southern side of the Caribbean, about 20 miles inland from the Venezuelan coastline, is a small farming town called Carabobo. There sits Hacienda de Cara Cara, a small farm and orchard where, 36 years ago, a chance mutation occurred between a couple of navel orange trees. If you know your Cara Caras, named for their birthplace (which also loosely translates to "beloved" or "dearest"), then you know the result: a perfectly normal, thick-rinded navel orange with surprisingly deep rosy pink flesh and a nuanced citrus sweetness balanced with a very slight but pleasing bitter tang. If you haven't tried a Cara Cara navel yet, your window of opportunity is slowly shrinking. We're nearing the end of its time here -- although the fruit is still prime-season juicy and fragrant.
That mutated tree eventually migrated via cutting scions to Florida in the '80s and eventually landed here in California, doing exceptionally well (what citrus doesn't?) and quickly filling a unique spot in our vast commercial citrus market. The unusual color, for a navel anyway, comes from lycopene, the bright red carotene that you find in tomatoes and other red fruits like watermelon.
The common impression is that the Cara Cara is somehow similar to a pink grapefruit. Sunkist says to think more along cranberry lines. The truth is somewhere in the middle. The flesh inside is prime navel moist with a very easy-to-peel, thick and aromatic rind. The low acidity also allows the sweetness to come forward without being too cloying. Also, it's just pretty. The pinkness glows and is evenly distributed throughout the flesh, unlike the dark, stain-speckles of blood oranges.
Several local growers have Cara Cara's available until late spring -- J.J.'s Lone Daughter Ranch, Arnett and Walker to name a few. Joe Avitua of Walker Farms (Pasadena and Glendale markets) says they're best right now.
"We'll have them another month or so," says Avitua, noting the weather plays its usual deciding role. "It's been a weird winter, but the fruit sweetened up well."