You can time the passing of winter in Southern California by watching the citrus timeline at your local market. December starts us off with small tangerines and mandarins, just in time for a holiday table, weather permitting. Then in January, you make room in the market bag for gravid pomelos and perfumey Cara Cara navels. Blood oranges, specifically the inky dark-fleshed Moros, show up at the end of January and are followed into early spring by the slightly larger, less flashy and significantly sweeter Tarocco. Sanguinelli brings up the rear, competing with the Tarocco on who will outlast whom. Last year we saw Taroccos well into May, possibly thanks to the super-cold winter and slow-to-warm spring that followed.
This winter has had none of the bone-chilling icy freezes that crippled some tree fruit crops in 2011. That's great news for stone fruit, apple and pear orchards. But if you're an admirer of the dark, tangy flesh of our local blood oranges, don't stall. If the warmer weather keeps coming, it'll be a much shorter season than last year.
All blood oranges are mutations of sweet oranges: Citrus sinensis as opposed to Citrus aurantium or bitter orange. The three main varieties — Moro, Tarocco and Sanguinelli — have several mutated offshoots that grow well and produce different and, in some cases, improved fruit. But those three are predominantly what you will find at your local markets. If you're feeling the need to name-drop, ask for a Khanpur, Vacarro, Ruby or Red Valencia, though most of these less common varieties seem to be relegated to well-protected private collections or, in the case of the Khanpur, are endangered by regional strife in their home countries.
The Moro is the most common and commercially available, popular perhaps because it is also the most dramatic. The flesh is juicy, although can be slightly bitter (great for marmalade) and is a deep wine color throughout. It is easy to spot and several growers have them. Tasting is encouraged and you should select according to your preferred purpose: fresh eating or preserves.
The Tarocco is by far the sweetest and most flavorful, though with the least showy flesh of the blood oranges. Often called a half-blood, it can be as dull-colored as an old orange, with some tinting near the rind, or dark pinkish brown, like a good L.A. sunset. It has very few seeds, if any, but can be a little tough to peel. Use a sharp paring knife instead of your hands.
Sanguinelli is another sweeter type of blood orange that can range in color from orange speckled with red to a dark red-brown. The rind of Sanguinellis can develop a deep red blush, a nice plus if you're candying rind or want to make a dark arancello. It ripens later than the Moro and the Tarocco and signals that spring isn't far off.
Several growers have excellent fruit this season, though we especially love the bloods from J.J.'s Lone Daughter Ranch, Mud Creek, Arnett and Walker Farms. And when in doubt, taste.
Felicia Friesema is a Master Food Preserver with the UC Cooperative Extension and Co-Leader of Slow Food USA's Los Angeles chapter. You can follow her on Twitter at @FeliciaFriesema.