by Mary Tutwiler

South Louisiana's citrus harvest sweetens up the holidays.

This time of year Acadiana's backyards and roadside orchards are decked out for Christmas with the beautiful oranges and yellows of the citrus crop that ripens in time for the holidays. Six different types of citrus fruit flourish here: grapefruit, navel oranges, Louisiana Sweet oranges, satsumas, lemons and kumquats, though more exotic varieties such as the scarlet-tinged blood orange are often grown in back yards. Jason Dupuis grows all six citrus fruits in his orchard in Breaux Bridge, and right now they are on sale at his roadside stand on Hwy. 31.

"It started as a hobby," the retired director of the Teche-Vermilion Fresh Water District says of his acres of glossy green-leafed trees. "I always admired an orchard. It was something I wanted to do." What began as a hobby has grown into 2,500 trees and a commercial venture that keeps local markets supplied with Acadiana's favorite orange, the satsuma.

Of all the types of oranges, satsumas are the easiest to eat. Their baggy skins peel easily off the mellow sweetness of their small segments, making them kid-friendly, or what Dupuis calls "toss-in-the-back-seat" fruit. They are also the most fragile once picked. Shelf life is about a week, Dupuis says, although they will keep longer in the refrigerator, and because satsumas are softer than most oranges, they need to be treated with a little tenderness in packaging. While they're ubiquitous in south Louisiana, "people don't know what a satsuma is in Shreveport, much less in Florida," Dupuis says.

Louisiana's citrus industry is not a commercial powerhouse as it is in Florida, Texas or California, where millions of gallons of orange juice are processed annually. It's also limited by the climate. If the temperature dips below 20 degrees, most citrus trees will freeze, which restricts citrus orchards to below I-10 for the most part, and occasionally threatens even the southernmost parishes's crops. Hurricane Katrina decimated the orchards of Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes, flooding the groves and killing most of the trees. Orchards in lower Vermilion Parish also suffered storm surge during Hurricane Rita, but because the water fell quickly after the storm, the damage was not as severe, and growers in Erath and around Kaplan are harvesting their crops.

"What we grow is high quality table fruit," Dupuis says. "Take our navel oranges. That's the premier eating orange." With their intense flavor, tart and sweet at the same time, navel oranges are the best eating of all the citrus fruits. Louisiana Sweets, a smaller orange with a better capacity to withstand cold weather, has lots of juice and seeds, making it a natural for fresh-squeezed juice. Kumquats, the smallest and most cold-hardy of the Louisiana citrus crop, are eaten peel and all, or often preserved as a type of marmalade. The peel actually has most of the flavor and is sweeter than the sour flesh. Round kumquats are sweeter than the oval-shaped variety. Most of the lemons grown in south Louisiana are a variety called Meyer lemon, which is actually a hybrid of an orange and a lemon. They are larger then most commercially grown lemons, more thin-skinned, juicer, and extremely fragrant. They make sensational lemon pies and tarts ' a perfect seasonal finish for holiday dinners.

Lazy Wild Duck with Orange (Serves 4)
2 wild ducks
1/2 stick of butter per duck
3 large oranges (Louisiana sweets or navel oranges are good)
parsley, chopped
good quality marmalade
duck or chicken stock
salt and pepper

Season the ducks inside and out with salt and pepper. Mash a large lump of butter with some parsley and put it inside each duck, with half a sweet orange cut in three wedges. Spread the duck with butter, then with the marmalade, generously, like breakfast toast. Put the ducks into a heavy dutch oven. Squeeze the juice of 2 oranges into the pot, add a little duck or chicken stock. Cover and put into a 350 degree oven. Baste about every 10 minutes, and add more juice or stock if the liquid dries up. Cook for 30-35 minutes for pink duck, 45-60 minutes (or more) for well done meat.

Ten minutes before the duck is done, remove the lid to brown the breast. Keep basting. When the bird is done remove it to a serving dish. Put the pot of juices on the stove over medium heat, scraping all the stuck bits up, bring to a boil, reducing until the sauce thickens just a bit and taste for seasoning. Whisk in a good knob of butter in little bits, to freshen the taste.

Serve with glazed turnips and carrots lightly cooked in butter.

Adapted from Jane Grigson's Fruit Book, published by Penguin Books Ltd.

Acadiana Citrus Orchards for buying just-picked fruit:

Simon Citrus Farm, 14405 Gladu Road, Kaplan, 893-3386
Go south on Hwy. 167 toward Abbeville. After you pass through Maurice, take a right at the light onto Hwy. 699. Travel on Hwy. 699 for about 5 miles to Tee Robe Road. Turn left on Tee Robe Road. Go to stop sign and take right on Gladu Road. Go about 1/2 a mile, and the orchard is on the left.

Dupuis Citrus Grove Roadside Stand, 1510 N. Berard St., Breaux Bridge, 332-2815, 1/2 mile north of Hwy. 94 on Hwy. 31

Daniel and Anna Romero's Orchard , 5116 Freetown Road, Coteau, New Iberia, 365-1690
Turn east on Freetown Road off of Hwy. 90 between Broussard and New Iberia.