Buddha’s Hand. Yuzu. Finger Limes. Jeju and Kishu Mandarins. Not familiar with these names? Nor was I until I visited Melissa’s Produce in Vernon, CA. Founded by Joe and Sharon Hernandez and named for their daughter Melissa, it’s a produce lover’s dream. Director of Public Relations, Robert Schueller, is passionate about produce and is a walking encyclopedia about Melissa’s. We spent an hour learning about and tasting exotic citrus. Robert led us through a tasting, which in many aspects was not unlike a wine tasting. “Neutralize your palate with water” before each taste, Robert urged. And taste we did. We didn’t taste Buddha’s Hand because as a member of the citron family it has no flesh. It’s incredibly fragrant though and we took deep sniffs. It’s a traditional gift at new year in China. We did taste kumquats, Yuzu, Finger Limes (citrus caviar) and sweet limes, best with a sprinkle of salt and chili powder. Yuzu is typically green, but late in the season these were pale orange in color. Finger Limes are one of the top 10 most expensive citrus per pound. You cut them in half and squeeze them into your mouth. The little grains that come out are reminiscent of caviar.
Moving to the next table we tasted Satsuma, Jeju and Kishu Mandarins as Robert explained what set each Mandarin apart from the others. Jeju is grown on a small Korean island and Kishu is considered to be a premium Mandarin. All were incredibly sweet. Cara Cara oranges are also known as pink navels and are delightfully sweet. Blood oranges are the common orange in Sicily, much like navels and Valencias are here. We sampled four different members of the grapefruit family: Oro Blanco, Pummelo, cocktail grapefruit and Melo Gold, all sublimely sweet, and learned that skin color has nothing to do with sweetness. Each grapefruit was green-fleshed, yet perfectly sweet. We finished our tasting with Key Limes, seedless lemons and Meyer Lemons. Robert assured us within five years all lemons will be seedless because Americans won’t tolerate seeds.
We then toured part of the nearly 300,000 square foot warehouse, where workers were packing Buddha’s Hand, pearl onions, Thai peppers, Persian cucumbers and many other types of produce. There are three different areas all maintained at different temperatures depending on they type of produce being prepared. The work is done by hand and is quite labor intensive. Workers were also packaging gift baskets. On an early December day you could imagine they were quite busy.
This was a fascinating and most educational visit. Chances are excellent you’ve purchased Melissa’s Produce. They handle up to 1500 different types of produce. They pioneered red dragon fruit in the U.S. and now source it in California and only have to import from Vietnam when it’s not in season here. They’re the official produce purveyor to the James Beard Foundation. They’re ardent supporters of ag students and work hand in hand with UC Riverside. The list goes on and on. Next time you shop for produce, keep an eye out for Melissa’s. Don’t be surprised if you find some.