By March, the majority of my being is eager to see Winter kicked to the curb and Spring ascendant. But a recent trip to the famous Bi-Rite Market on 18th Street in San Francisco’s Mission District reminded me of one reason to miss the season, and that is citrus.
Bi-Rite is a small, independent supermarket stocking a stunning amount of edible wonders, especially for East Coasters. Raw milk, copies of Edible San Francisco, a wall of West Coast cheeses and charcuterie we never see, hand-crafted everything from Meyer lemon marmalade to perfect thick pasta to pickled cherries. But this time of year, it’s hard for me to make it past the middle aisle right inside the front door, which is currently covered with citrus: ruby red grapefruits, Clementines with a few leaves still attached, Cara Cara navel oranges, mandarines, kumquats, lemonquats, limequats, tangelos, loose-skinned tangerines and three kinds of lemons, to name but a few.
And it’s not just me that feels the joy. “When we get up to 26 varieties we get excited,” says Matt Serrecchio, a produce buyer for Bi-Rite, who notes that that part of the store, sourced mainly from southern California, is called “the citrus bomb, or the citrus explosion.”
As much as possible, says Serrecchio–who has manned the produce department for four years, the past two as a buyer–Bi-Rite usually works directly with many of the farmers that grow what they stock. One small citrus grower who supplies them is Bernard Ranches in Riverside County, just north of Los Angeles: “It’s on an amazing piece of land that just happens to be on soil,” says Serrecchio, “that’s perfect for growing citrus.” The farm, whose produce can also be found at San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza farmers market on Saturdays, provides Bi-Rite with specialty citrus like limequats and Meyer lemonquats and the Kishu mandarin orange, which so tiny–“smaller than strawberries,” says Serrecchio–that Bi-Rite sells it in little boxes.
Beyond smaller growers like the Bernards, much of Bi-Rite’s winter citrus comes from cooperative of 16 sustainably minded farms–some large, some small; some organic, some not, says Serrecchio–about an hour north of Los Angeles near Ojai. Ojai, notes Serrecchio, has an “amazing citrus scene,” and is best-known for its easy-to-peel Pixie tangerines, which are just now arriving at Bi-Rite. (Ojai is also the birthplace, by the way, of Edible Communities.)
Those super-sweet Pixies, sadly, mark the end of the citrus season, which usually fades with the month of March. But don’t feel too badly for Serrecchio. He’s got his hands full, considering that in California, strawberry and asparagus season has already begun.