Oh, Mandy: Grower explains mandarin myths and what to buy
SMELL that sweet, juicy aroma? It's mandarin season, and that means it's the busiest time of year for local citrus growers.
Hundreds of pickers are busily filling bins of fruit in orchards around the region and Abbotsleigh Citrus managing partner Michael McMahon gave the NewsMail a tour of his farm near Wallaville.
"April and May is our busiest period," Mr McMahon said. "We have about 160 pickers here today, and around 120 on the mandarins, and 40 on lemons.
"We want anything that's got some orange on it - half-colour is what we're looking for."
After picking, the half-green mandarins are placed in refrigerated, high-humidity rooms.
"That gets the green out of the fruit so they're a nice yellow to orange colour when you see them on the shelves in the supermarket," Mr McMahon said, standing between rows of trees near a picker hard at work.
"The guy behind us has a ring in his hand to make sure he's picking the right size fruit."
So what makes a tasty mandarin?
"When you find a mandarin on the shelve you want a nice flat one," Mr McMahon said. "If they're a bit ball-y, they might not taste as good as that means they're not quite ready yet.
"You want a nice flat mandarin that is firm to the touch but not hard. I find it's easiest to peel from the stem end."
NewsMail online editor Crystal Jones wrote an opinion piece last week about what she felt were low quality mandarins in supermarkets being marketed as new season fruit.
There are lots of factors that influence the quality of a mandarin, Mr McMahon explains, addressing "some of the things Crystal has seen on the shelves".
"It's very early in the piece for the mandarin season. Everyone's keen to get stuck into mandarins - the growers are keen, the consumers are keen to get stuck into them," Mr McMahon said.
"The handling of the mandarins, particularly at that early stage, is so critical. The greener fruits are very sensitive.
Sometimes you'll see some fruit on the shelves and it will be a bit brown around the stem."
With pickers picking thousands of mandarins each day at high speed, sometimes the fruit gets nicked by pruning shears.
"If the fruit gets nicked, a couple of days after the packing process you will see that bit turn black. It's very hard to see because it doesn't show up straight away," Mr McMahon said.
"The challenge is, the stems can't be too long, because the fruit is so soft, it will poke the other fruit."
When picking, "We tell them you've got to be able to rub your thumb over it and not jag your thumb. If it jags your thumb, it's too long.
"Equally if you see snipper damage, that's not good either.
"Those are the things we look for."
Rain before picking can also cause the fruit to go brown several days after it is picked.
"It's not from storing them for months on end - the fruit is really fresh," he added.
"The fruit you're seeing here today will be picked today, packed in about three days' time, go to the supermarket distribution centres or wholesale markets that night, and from there they send them out to the supermarket that day.
"Particularly with this variety, Imperial, it is very fresh - because these don't have a long shelf life.
"But sometimes if the supply chain doesn't work as well as it should early in the season, you see a bit of browning around the stem end. That's natural and nothing to be afraid of - the fruit will still eat really well."