Monthly Archives: January 2015

US 98: Oysters, Mullet & Margaritas

So one of the things I do – and one of the things I love to do, even though when I did my first one I kind of dreaded it – is talk to people about my travels across Florida and how the Guide to the Southernmost State is perhaps the best guidebook to Florida ever. Do NOT make the mistake of asking me a Florida-related question if you want a quick answer, and under no circumstances should you ask me a Florida question and then allow me to corner you on the street if you have somewhere you need to be. Ever. I love to talk about how I retraced the depression-era driving tours of the state.

Sour Orange Margaritas for everyone!  Teacher of the year, ladies and gentlemen.

Last night was no exception, except these weren’t hapless strangers I cornered on the street but an enthusiastic group of residents who live at Westminster Palms at the edge of Old Northeast. My topic? Eating your way across the panhandle, using the 1939 WPA Guide to the Southernmost State as, well, a guide. I called my talk Oysters, Mullet & Margaritas.

The great folks at Westminster partner with OLLI at Eckerd College to bring speakers to the Palms. One of the Palms staff prepared pulled pork sliders and key lime pie. I brought Ted Peters fish spread. At the end, even though technically they weren’t from the panhandle, I made the “class” sour orange margaritas. Best. Teacher. Ever.

If you want my recipe for sour orange margaritas, there’s a whole post on my food blog, Aphrodite’s Hearth. I’d give it to you here, but it would consume the whole post space with interesting-to-foodies-but-maybe-not-to-you facts about sour oranges, sour mix, sugar and– well, you get the idea.

I will say this about sour oranges: One does not simply saunter into a grocery store and purchase them. I had some juice in my fridge from a December OLLI trip to Hawthorne, where Chef Omar at Southern Charm made the OLLI class sour orange pie and gave me a few of his stash.

That juice made for a good start but Ben Tillett, the owner of The Citrus Place in Terra Ceia, totally saved the day. Fresh sour oranges are not standard in any store I’ve seen, even orange juice stands – they’re beyond specialty. Mr. Tillett went into his groves yesterday morning and picked all the sour oranges he had on hand. If you’ve never been to the Citrus Place, it’s the first left after the first exit as you head south over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. They have juice they squeeze on-premises, orange ice cream, Terra Ceia clams, and oranges and grapefruit from nearby Parrish and Odessa. I wrote about them in January 2010; read that Detours & Diversions piece here.

The whole talk made me realize how little many Floridians know about Florida’s food mores. We have a rich history with aquaculture but also agriculture and ranching, and none of that is new: Dating back before the Guide made its way into Florida homes, Floridians worked the land and waters. I can’t imagine living somewhere without readily-accessible seafood or local beef, but many of the people who attend my talks (not all) tell me they had no idea Florida had as much food production as it does.

What’s so cool about food in Florida is that the things we produce locally now are the same things we produced locally 500 years ago: Oysters, mullet, redfish, fruit… it’s all the same. We brought in citrus from Spain when we decided St. Augustine should be a thing, so even that’s hung around Florida since the European beginning. But the mullet and mussels and such? As long as people called Florida home, that’s what they ate, because that’s what Florida made. Which is kind of cool, when you think about things in terms of the Columbian exchange of foods between the new world and the old. Much of what we can readily get in Florida was here before the Europeans.

Well, OK, except for the sour orange margaritas. Those are totally new. I’m pretty sure the Calusa didn’t have triple sec.

Detours & Diversions – The Citrus Place: A Slice of Orange Heaven

Florida is the third largest beef-producing state east of the Mississippi. We grow most of the houseplants sold in the country. The Sunshine Stateleads the world, certainly, in theme parks. Oranges, however, are Florida’s liquid gold. 80% of America’s orange juice comes from Florida, and Florida is the world’s top grapefruit producer.
How, exactly, though, are oranges (or grapefruit or orange juice) a detour or a diversion? Well, up until relatively recently in Pinellas history, citrus fans could tour Orange Blossom Groves on US 19 and watch as conveyor belts sorted oranges as they came into the plant from the expansive grove behind it. They could then proceed to a separate tasting room to taste fresh-squeezed Florida orange juice. Sadly, those days are gone. However, just south of the Sunshine Skyway The Citrus Place still trades in liquid gold.
WHAT: Ben Tillett opened The Citrus Place in the 1970s as a “You Pick” grapefruit business. When citrus canker struck his groves a few years later he could only allow workers to go into the groves. The Citrus Place became a packing house and ultimately progressed to a packing and shipping business. Today, the Tillett family still owns the grove and the shop in front that sells citrus, juice, jams, jellies, and fruit sections.
WHY: Even citrus growers admit that the Florida citrus industry is coughing a death rattle, despite what the Florida Department of Citrus’ marketing says. Tropicana and Minute Maid get much of their juice from Brazil.
Tasting fresh Florida juice, much less unpasteurized and locally grown and squeezed juice, will be something people tell their grandchildren about, not something they take their grandchildren to do. If you’ve never tried fresh- truly fresh- juice, you might not know what you’re missing. Go find out.
WHOBen and his wife Vera work the grove and shop with their son, Sid, and two other employees.
WHEN: The Citrus Place is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
WHERE: Find The Citrus Place at 7200 US 19 in Terra Ceia. They’re a 20-minute (roughly) drive from the south end of 275. Take 275 south  over the Sunshine Skyway to the first exit, US 19, and bear right. It’s your very first left or your next U-turn. If you can’t make it across the Sunshine Skyway and need your orange juice fix, you can get their juice at the Bayway Country Store (on the Bayway heading towards Tierra Verde, 867-7507.)
BEST part: The juice. While it probably doesn’t taste like liquid gold, it’s how liquid gold should taste. It’s worth the short drive for a free sample and the opportunity to buy some to bring home.
WORST part: Oddly, the oranges don’t come from the grove behind the shop anymore, but the Tillett family still gets their citrus from Florida: Odessa and Parrish. Similarly, the days of picking your own citrus or watching the huge sorting machine do its work are also gone, but the juice is still there, very fresh and still tasting like Florida’s “liquid gold.”
The Citrus Place is a storefront and doesn’t charge admission, although they do offer free samples of juice and fresh fruit sections. Call them at (941) 722-6745 with questions or requests. Cash only.
He’s just so HAPPY you’re here.