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Feb 08 2017

Grapefruit: Spain's Other Citrus

Spanish grapefruit is winning friends abroad. Its yellow or blushing peel, tangy red pulp, nutritive qualities and fragrant aromas are helping it conquer a growing share of the import markets in France, Germany and other European countries. In Spain however, grapefruit is virtually unknown on the domestic market and in traditional Spanish gastronomy. In the heart of grapefruit country, farmers from Murcia are doing what they can to help spread the word about this succulent citrus made in Spain

 

It's not unusual for people to return from a trip to Murcia with their cars packed full of fruits and vegetables. Located in the southeast corner of Spain, Murcia is snugly nestled between Andalusia, Valencian Community and the sea. Its semi-arid Mediterranean climate is ideal for growing lettuce, artichokes, tomatoes and Monastrell grapes used for producing the area's excellent, full-bodied red wines. While lemon and orange trees are a common sight, another of the province's important products is grapefruit, which is exported all over the world (albeit in small quantities; the bulk head to Europe). On my way home from Murcia with a 20 kg (44 lb) box of grapefruit, I had a better grasp of its role in Spain's export market and its bid for recognition here at home.

Grapefruit was discovered in Barbados in 1750 by Griffith Hughes (1707-1758; Welsh naturalist) who dubbed it the "forbidden fruit", as he had been searching for the tree of good and evil in the Garden of Eden at the time. Its name was later changed to grapefruit, supposedly because its fruit hangs in clusters much like oversized bunches of grapes. The original grapefruit was an accidental hybrid of two Asian transplants, the shaddock and sweet orange. Shaddock, an ancient citrus thought to have originated in Asia as early as 100 BC, is named for the English Captain Philip Shaddock who purportedly brought the first of these fruits to Barbados in 1649.

Tropical treasure

Nowadays, it's important to distinguish between grapefruit and shaddock, as the names are often used incorrectly. Grapefruit, called pomelo in Spanish, is of the species Citrus paradisi, while shaddock (sometimes called pummelo) is of Citrus maxima, and is often referred to as Chinese or Asian grapefruit in European markets. Shaddocks look more like giant pears, and have firm or crunchy pulp and a thick peel.

Like many New World botanicals, the grapefruit eventually migrated to Spain. However, it never became a traditional Spanish crop, or a staple of the Spanish diet. Commercial grapefruit cultivation in Spain only began in the late 1970s/early 1980s, and currently involves about 2,300 ha (5,683 acres) of land. Although grapefruits are also grown in southern Valencia and Alicante, and parts of Huelva and Seville in Andalusia, Murcia is without a doubt the center for all things grapefruit in Spain, accounting for approximately 30,000 of the 55,000 tons of grapefruit produced here annually. This is particularly true in the southern areas of Campo de Cartagena, the Guadalentín Valley and Águilas.

The agricultural wealth of Murcia is a meld of climate and geography. According to José Luis Albacete, whose company Earmur is located on the northern slope of the Sierra de Carrascoy Mountains about 14 km (8.7 mi) southwest of the city of Murcia, there are many reasons why grapefruit is an ideal crop in this region.

A pioneer of grapefruit cultivation in Spain, José Luis started out as an almond farmer, but increasing difficulties in the market steered him towards trying something new. For 50 years, his grandfather had dedicated a small corner of land to experimenting with the then little-known crop of grapefruit. José Luis was able to observe firsthand the relative ease with which these citrus fruits could be cultivated in this area of plentiful sun, loose soil, and a virtual lack of diseases and frosts. Earmur currently produces about 3,000 tons of grapefruit, but José Luis predicts that production will increase to 10,000 tons over the next two to three years when the youngest plantations reach maturity.

The company’s success with this crop is immediately apparent. On my visit to the plantation in early December, dozens of partridges scurried like mad across a road lined with heavily laden grapefruit trees. The golden fruits grow in bunches that are often concentrated towards the undersides of the tree, or reaching down to touch the land like fingertips. It was almost shocking to see so many large fruits on one tree, realizing that they must be harvested by hand, one by one.

The area known as Águilas, which is located on the coast, has an even more distinct microclimate, nestled as it is between the sea and the mountains. The weather is very mild with few extremes. This results in lower acidity in the fruit, since acidity is increased by large temperature differences between day and night, and by early winter cold. The company, Grupo G’s España, has been cultivating grapefruit around Águilas for the past 30 years. G’s España was a pioneer in bringing the variety Star Ruby to Spain at the end of the 1970s. According to Ponciano Pons, the company's Senior Key Account Manager, the Star Ruby variety grapefruits grown here are noticeably less acidic than their Turkish or Israeli counterparts. Although the company initially planted more varieties, today it exclusively grows the popular Star Ruby grapefruits, with an annual production of around 8,000 tons a year.

Star Ruby vs. Rio Red

Grapefruits are categorized by color into either colored (red or pink) or white varieties. The two most important types currently grown in Spain are both red varieties: Star Ruby and Rio Red. As grapefruit itself is a hybrid, the different varieties of grapefruit are either natural mutations, crosses or, more often, developed via bud or seed irradiation. Star Ruby was created in 1970 through irradiation.

This seedless variety is characterized by its fine, smooth skin, juiciness and deep, pinkish-red flesh, which is thought to be the most intensely colored of any variety. Rio Red, also a product of irradiation, was developed in 1976. These very juicy fruits tend to be less deeply colored than the Star Ruby variety, have a slightly thicker skin, and contain two to three seeds per fruit. Both varieties were developed by a Texas-based researcher, Richard Hensz.

According to José Luis Albacete, the difference between these two varieties can be subtle. To prove his point, he opened one of each variety straight off the trees for me to taste. Both fruits had a refreshingly sharp acidity that was tempered by the sweetness of the fruit and the characteristic grapefruit aroma. Both were the same size and shape, pale orange-yellow in color with deep rosy highlights on the peel, and were the same dark pinkish-red inside.

While I found it terribly romantic to be savoring freshly picked grapefruit in the middle of a picturesque citrus orchard in southeastern Spain, I was at a loss to guess which variety was which. As it turns out, the real difference is economic. José Luis explained that the variety Star Ruby is more widely known, but time has revealed it to be somewhat delicate, with less resistance to sun exposure after 15 years, and lower yields. Other grapefruit varieties, like the more robust Rio Red, typically produce fruit for 30 to 40 years, and can live to be 100. Forgotten fruit, export success

In fact, one of the more surprising facts about Spain's grapefruit crop is the fact that very few natives seem to know it exists. Only an estimated 20% of the 55,000 tons of grapefruit produced annually in Spain are sold domestically. According to José Luis’s daughter, Nieves Albacete, who now runs Earmur, a large portion of these sales go to hotels or cruise ships, which cater to foreign palates more accustomed to eating grapefruit as a regular part of their diets.

Though there are currently only six or seven Spanish companies dedicated to this minority citrus, production quantities in Spain over the past several seasons have either increased or remained stable. The crop is also extremely solid here in terms of price fluctuations. This stability is reflected in the fact that Spanish grapefruit growers are making quite an impact on the European import market. Spain is now the fourth largest grapefruit exporter to the European Union after the United States (Florida), Israel and Turkey. While Florida still leads the world market, its share has declined this past decade due to debilitating freezes, hurricanes, citrus diseases, and other factors such as encroaching land development.

In Europe, Florida grapefruits once were 45-50% of imports, but by 2006, the amount had dropped to only 20-25%. For Spain's grapefruit growers, this changing world marketplace has meant opportunity, demonstrated by the fact that 70-80% of Spanish production is currently exported. The majority of these 45,000 tons is exported to France, Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic, among others. Increasing quantities are also being sold to Russia, a high-potential new market.

The freshest fruit

The question now for Spanish producers is how to gain an even greater hold on the world market. The obvious solution is to figure out how to differentiate Spanish grapefruit from its competitors. Although the same varieties are produced all over the world, climate and other environmental factors can have some effect on varietal differences. Spanish grapefruit is known for its perfect uniformity of color and tone, and its usually blemish-free appearance. In terms of individual variety, one differentiating factor is that Spanish Star Ruby fruits are generally larger than their Turkish counterparts. This is important since Turkey is the main exporter to a growing Russian market, which at times demands the larger fruit more available from Spain.

Small improvements in the already exceptional fruit quality and production practices will probably not improve Spain’s export market share that much. There is one factor, however, that Spanish producers are working hard to exploit, and it's one that could make all the difference. As the only grapefruit producing country in the European Union, Spain's clear advantage comes down to shorter shipping times. Companies like Earmur and G’s España, as well as AILIMPO, are doing what they can to get the word out on the incomparable freshness of Spanish grapefruit.

At Earmur, Nieves Albacete explains that it’s not unusual for grapefruits to be picked in the morning, prepared in the factory at midday, and shipped to France in the afternoon. Spain's grapefruits are all shipped via truck, which head directly to supermarkets throughout the EU. Grapefruits are often on the shelves by the very next day, or at most, 72 hours after picking, in the case of the United Kingdom. The same is true for other Spanish producers, and this provides a huge advantage in comparison with other countries.

Another selling point related to faster delivery is the concept of integrated farming. A broad term that refers to taking an integrated or global approach to agriculture, its practices involve promoting sustainability through methods for reducing wastes and residues, and implementing chemical alternatives such as biological pest control. This agricultural technique is especially important in exporting to countries like Germany and France, which put a premium on natural products. The fact that grapefruit grows so easily in Murcia means that farmers use very few chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

The versatile citrus

While grapefruit has had no discernable role in traditional Spanish gastronomy, it’s now present on the menus of many of Spain's renowned, avant-garde chefs, including Rodrigo de la Calle.

Rodrigo de la Calle, the maestro of "gastrobotanical" cuisine, loves the versatility of grapefruit, both zest and pulp, its fragrant aromas and flavors, and its freshness and balanced acidity. In his words, “Grapefruit is very interesting for its elegance on the palate, its meaty texture, bold and addictive flavor, and nutritional properties. It’s a good accompaniment for sweet shellfish, as the subtle acidity that it lends to red prawns, for instance, helps to temper their sweetness. In desserts, I love the combination of grapefruit with nuts, banana or cherimoya creams, which are lightened by the citric notes of grapefruit.”

Chef Joaquín de Felipe also plays with the versatility of red grapefruit, using it for both desserts and savory main dishes, particularly in ceviches like the one that he makes using yellowtail (fish) and chilies, which are macerated with grapefruit and other citrus juices. For him, "grapefruit balances the citrus flavors by adding a completely different and appealing touch of acidity. This adds complexity to the more common flavors of lemon and orange."

The recent culinary applications of Spanish grapefruit seem to mirror the fact that, in the words of José Antonio García, "grapefruit is Spain's most modern, large producing crop." It also seems to reflect the burgeoning success of Spanish grapefruit on the European market, where its high quality and freshness relative to competing products is now translating to a greater market share. In Murcia, all of these factors have the potential to spur future growth of this crop—one that seems tailor-made for the varied landscapes and climates of this autonomous community of Spain.

Recipes with Spanish grapefuits:

- Chard-Grilled sturgeon with baked potato broth and grapefruit oil. (Tacos de esturión a la brasa con caldo de patata asada y aceite de pomelo)

- Clams in seaweed steam with essence of pink grapefruit and curled cardoon. (Almejas al vapor de algas con esencia de pomelo Rosado y cardo rizado)

- Beetroot with grapefruit salt, toasted garlic cream and beaten goats' cheese whey. (Remolacha a la sal de pomelo, crema de ajos tostados y suero batido de queso de cabra)

 

It's not unusual for people to return from a trip to Murcia with their cars packed full of fruits and vegetables. Located in the southeast corner of Spain, Murcia is snugly nestled between Andalusia, Valencian Community and the sea. Its semi-arid Mediterranean climate is ideal for growing lettuce, artichokes, tomatoes and Monastrell grapes used for producing the area's excellent, full-bodied red wines Adrienne Smith/©ICEX
Grapefruit
Grapefruit
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