Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Take the ferry across the Mississippi out of New Orleans. Land in Algiers, (have a bowl of gumbo at the little corner bar across from the ferry terminal and admire the spruced up shotgun houses that line the streets close to the levy before leaving), and drive out into the sugar cane countryside where the land is wide and flat and the sky is violet at dawn and dusk. Out where the cane grows, you'll also find satsuma groves, the local citrus which is small and sweet and usually seedless.

Satsumas grow exceedingly well in southern Louisiana. They like the soil, the light, the air, the humidity, the climate. They say, they being those who write research notes in agricultural journals, that satsumas, also called mikan in Japan, naartjie in South Africa, and mandarin or tangerine in Canada originate from Wenzhou, a city in the Zheijang province in China, a city known for its citrus production. The fruit was listed as a royal offering for Imperial consumption as far back as the Tang Dynasty, and evidence of its cultivation is recorded back some 2400 years. In China, the satsuma is known as Wenshou migan which translated means Wenzhou honey citrus. One of the distinguishing features of the satsuma is the distinctive thin, leathery skin dotted with large and prominent oil glands, which is lightly attached around the fruit, enabling it to be peeled very easily in comparison to other citrus fruits. The satsuma also has particularly delicate flesh. The mikan was introduced to Japan by a Buddhist monk who passed through Wenzhou on his way back to Japan. Mikan is the general word for citrus in Japanese, and satsuma have been grown in Japan since ancient times.

In 1876 during the Meiji Period, mikan were brought to the United States from the Satsuma province in Japan by a U.S. ambassador's wife. I wish I knew her name, and from where she hailed. The records say very little. Did our ambassasdor's wife take her mikan seeds down south with her to where they now thrive, where there are now the towns of Satsuma, Alabama, Satsuma, Florida and Satsuma, Louisiana? Did she plant them in California, or did she cultivate them in a green house in Minnesota or New Hampshire, or even here in Vermont?

Far away from Vermont, back in November, we drove out into the sugar cane fields and passed countless roadside stands selling satsumas and Creole tomatoes. About half-way to New Iberia, we stopped at a small grove a couple of miles down a country road. A small table was set up in front of the garage with bags of satsumas and a price list. A pretty blonde woman came out of the house, the daugher of the grove owner, dressed in jeans and gloves with the fingers cut out, and offered us a bucket and clippers if we'd like to pick fresh. She spoke with a cajun accent which is thick, and flecked with French and is not unlike the Quebecois English outside Montreal. In her jeans pocket was a small silver ladies' pistol. We took our bag all the way to Houston where we shared them with friends after a dinner of sausages and fried vegetables.

Faraway from south Louisiana, on this cold, and snowy night we indulge in the winter season luxury of fresh citrus. We set out two small tangerine in a bowl for after dinner. They look pretty on the table in the candlelight, and taste very fine with eggnog laced with Irish whiskey, a souvenir from other travels. The fruit is sweet at first with a bitter finish and reminds us of a hot wind through the sugar cane, the taste of a seafood boil, and the unblinking alligator seen at dusk in the bayou.

No comments: