Vicky Boyd, Staff Writer
Vicky Boyd, Staff Writer

Food Network star Rachael Ray annoys me to the point where I just can’t stand to watch her.

But you have to give her and all of the Food Network stars credit for raising consumer awareness of produce, and, in particular, specialty produce.

Not too long ago, about the only TV chefs were the Galloping Gourmet and Julia Child.

Now between the Food Network and Bravo, and even network television, there are cooking shows and cooking challenges everywhere.

This has really opened the door for growers and packers who focus on flavor — a trait consumers increasingly seek.

It’s also introduced consumers to a whole host of produce items they might not have been familiar with and has created a more adventurous attitude.

During a mid-February meeting at Lindsay, Calif.-based Suntreat Packing & Shipping Co., Mike George, president, and Al Imbimbo, vice president of sales, introduced me to Sumo citrus.

The fruit, technically known as dekopon, is appropriately marketed under the Sumo name because it’s humongous. The tangerine-like variety is easy to peel, seedless, sweet and nearly melts in your mouth. But they’re not pretty by any means.

In fact, George and Imbimbo joked that they’re “cosmetically challenged.”

“We’re not looking for something that looks pretty, but we’re looking for something that eats pretty,” George said.

Like most tree fruit, Sumos take three or four years to come into production and another few years before they reach peak yields.

Suntreat launched the line three seasons ago, and demand has exceeded supply. One taste, and you know why.

“We’ve got a lot of people who come back and have been with us all three years,” Imbimbo said. “Others want to join the party.”

He credited the Food Network for creating legions of foodies and foodie wannabes.

Suntreat is banking on that with its new reserve citrus line that includes a seedless lemon; oro blanco, a cross between a pummelo and a white grapefruit; cara cara, a pink-fleshed navel orange; a tree-ripe navel orange; and the late-season gold nugget mandarin.

Specialty shopping

A day after by my Suntreat meeting, I was shopping in O’Brien’s Market, a family-owned chain of three local retailers, and noticed a display of cara caras. The Dale Road O’Brien’s, where I was, is known for specialty items.

Gary, the knowledgeable and friendly produce manager, and I talked about not only cara caras but also the growing popularity of blood oranges. It seems the dark red-fleshed citrus variety is a popular ingredient on many cooking shows.

Wouldn’t you know it?

Gary also credited the Food Network for bringing specialty produce items into everybody’s home.

He said he frequently encounters shoppers with recipes on their smartphones looking for specific ingredients.

Only a week earlier, Gary said a customer had come in looking for a star apple, which isn’t an apple at all but is more closely related to a sapote.

If you’re wondering, star apple was one specialty item that O’Brien’s didn’t stock.

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