December is around the corner and the citrus season is here once again. Just at the right time, when we need to boost our vitamin C intake to defend ourselves from common autumn ailments.
A variety of locally grown sweet and sour oranges, lemons, tangerines, clementines and grapefruits are starting to appear on vendors’ shelves and as time goes by, growers will be harvesting by the crates. But for now most of the fruit is still ripening, (still attached to trees, not in cold rooms), so we’ll have to wait a little more to have an abundance of local fruits on the market.
The taste of local citrus is exceptional! I’ve tried many varieties, locally and abroad, and I have yet to find one variety that beats the taste of locally grown citrus cultivars. Other countries can boast about citrus fruits having a higher juice content or thinner skin, but what’s sure is that aroma and taste of our local ones are second to none.
At the risk of stating the obvious, citrus fruits grow on trees which need to be cared for 365 days a year. Producers need to make tough choices during the year in order to achieve a good quality product. Daily decisions such as; how much and when to irrigate, how to prevent pest infestations and what to do in case the final product is jeopardised.
Both in conventional and organic farming, the use of plant protection products (PPPs) notoriously known as pesticides, is sometimes inevitable. The question is not if pesticides have been used or not, but if there are dangerous traces left in the products that reach the market. Over the years we have allowed a myriad of pests to make their way to our Maltese shores. If we keep allowing pests to infest our trees, then the battle will never be over. We will keep having new pests and diseases to fight, and old ones to keep at bay.
Consumers often ask; How will I know if it’s local and safe? This is a very tricky question which I’ll try to answer right here.
Know your grower
I’ve said this previously, but I can never stress it enough. The only way to know more about the origin and quality of what you’re buying is to build a relationship with your grower… yes directly with your food producer!
Whether you buy from the traditional “trakk tal-ħaxix” (fruit and veg hawker), a way-side farm shop or possibly the farmers’ market, it is not impossible to have a chat about what you’re buying. Once you gain the confidence to ask him or her questions about the product, you will get a clearer picture about the product. Do not be afraid or shy to ask.
If you buy from a supermarket, then the distance between your purchased product and producer increases due to complex supply chains. Some supermarkets do care for labelling the product properly as local or foreign.
Certainly, when you buy imported products, conventional or organic, from any retail outlet, your only option is to rely on the label. Foreign citrus originates predominantly from the EU, but it’s also imported from outside the continent.
Personally, I would rather trust the word of a grower with whom I have built a relationship over the years, rather than a label or certificate. On various occasions consumers have been tricked by certificates and paid higher prices for products which did not honestly meet their guaranteed standards.
You might encounter a seller highlighting the fact that if a citrus fruit has it’s stalk and some leaves attached, then it has to be local. This used to be a good indicator, but unfortunately, it’s not the case any longer. Although importing citrus fruits with vegetative parts (leaves) is illegal, I have been recently informed that fruits of this kind are reaching our shores and entering our food chain.
A serious matter
Being tricked in this way is shameful especially if you’re paying a higher price for a “local product”. In principle, if you’re told that the product is local, then it should be! Otherwise, that product is fraudulent. However, this food fraud alert fades in comparison to plant health hazards.
Such citrus fruits may be reaching our shores from a neighbouring country, which could be a zone where the deadly Citrus Tristeza Virus (CTV) can be commonly found. Several months ago, the CTV was confirmed to be found in Malta and the mode of entry to our shores was, most probably, through the importation of live young trees from Sicily.
This time we are risking even further… when citrus fruits (bearing the stalk and leaves) are smuggled into Malta, we are increasing greatly the risk of introducing more viruses which could devastate local trees. There is no cure for this virus and the only solution would be to burn the infested trees. Let’s keep in mind that most of our local citrus trees are truly part of our natural heritage. They could be wiped out simply because someone irresponsible was greedy enough to ship and sell a fraudulent product.
“Of Orange Groves & Tangerine Sunsets: An Ecotour in Rural Malta” https://triciaannemitchell.com/2016/02/28/things-to-do-malta-ecotour-orange-picking/