LAKE WALES, FLA. -- In central Florida, where Disney dominates the landscape like pixie dust, the world of make-believe becomes real. At Citrus World, what is real seems make-believe.
One of the Sunshine State's largest and most diversified orange juice processing plants, Citrus World squeezes 9 million pounds of oranges every day, can fill 1,100 cans every minute. The smell of oranges permeates the air indoors and out, shifting from a light fragrance in one area to an intense, flowery aroma in another.
With its complex of chutes, conveyor belts and metallic cylinders, the plant looks like a giant erector set. Endless containers of Donald Duck orange juice, the company's leading brand and the second-best selling frozen concentrate in the Baltimore-Washington area, scuttle down conveyor lines faster than you can spell M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E.
Citrus World, Inc., is one of 29 orange juice processing plants in Florida, where almost 95 percent of the state's orange production is squeezed into juice. The plants vary in size, complexity and product mix -- from those that just concentrate juice to those that process a diversity of fruit beverages.
Ownership arrangements run the gamut, too. Conglomerates such as Coca-Cola (Minute Maid), Procter & Gamble (Citrus Hill) and Beatrice (Tropicana) run processing facilities in Florida, as do individual entrepreneurs who also own their own groves.
Citrus World, however, is owned by a cooperative of co-ops -- 13 organizations consisting of more than 1,000 individual growers who own a total of more than 50,000 acres of groves. The company packages frozen concentrate, canned and reconstituted cartons for almost 100 accounts, including hotels, airlines, hospitals and supermarkets such as Safeway and A&P. With all the package sizes, container types and juice varieties, Citrus World manufactures approximately 1,100 different products, according to Scott Norton, the company's national sales manager for special markets.
Among the trailer parks and billboards beside the highway south of Orlando, Donald Duck hovers above the flatland on a bright red water tower. The tower is also imprinted with the words "Citrus World," and neither the duck nor the appellation comes as a complete surprise. After all, everything in this area revolves around Disney World and many local businesses are defined in such cosmic terms (Denim World, Insurance World, Used Tire World).
Inside the company's lab, a carton of Tropicana Premium Orange Juice awaits comparative analysis; Citrus World recently rolled out a competitive product called Fresh 'n Natural, so far distributed only in the South and Midwest. Both products are made from freshly squeezed juice that has been pasteurized but not concentrated, one of the latest crazes in the orange juice market (see related story, page E10.)
Orange juice concentrate and drinks such as Fresh 'n Natural are blended like wine. Processors typically combine the juice from a variety of oranges to attain consistent flavor and color, explains Kevin Gaffney, manager of research and development for Citrus World.
Like other Florida processors, Citrus World depends on imports of Brazilian concentrate. Due to the freezes that have devastated Florida groves in recent years, coupled with an increasing consumer demand, about 40 percent of the U.S. orange juice now comes from Brazilian citrus growers. The Brazilian orange variety is called para valencia because it is similar in flavor and color to the Florida valencia.
Here the co-op's growers are currently harvesting mid-season fruit, called pineapple oranges. Hamlins and parson browns are picked from November to January and valencias are considered "late season" fruit. As the season progresses and if weather conditions don't alter the fruit's characteristics, the orange juice gets sweeter and has more flavor and color. The concentrate made from each season's fruit is frozen in what Citrus World calls its "tank farm" -- a massive enclave of stainless steel tanks -- and blended as needed.
Citrus World uses computers to help project how and when to blend the frozen concentrate from the tank farm. "It's a complicated system to get a consistent product," says Gaffney. "Sometimes Mother Nature is mean to us."
The whole process starts in the parking lot, where trailer trucks piled high with oranges await unloading. Each truck holds 400 to 500 boxes of oranges at 90 pounds each -- all picked by hand. Although mechanical harvesters have been tested, they are still unable to remove oranges from the tree without damage to the fruit.
After the oranges are unloaded, a small percentage is set aside by a mechanical sampler owned and operated by the state of Florida. Extractors squeeze the juice from this group of oranges and a computer calculates its "brix," a unit used to designate the percent of dissolved solids in a solution. In citrus juices, the dissolved solid is primarily sugar.
The grower then gets paid based on the amount of sugar, or solids, in the trailer, explains Gaffney -- not the amount of oranges. The state acts as the uninvolved third party to verify the contents of the load.
Meanwhile, a bank of extractors deals with the rest of the fruit. Like a bizarre dental contraption, the extractors' top and bottom teeth encircle the oranges and bite down, their interlocking prongs squashing the fruit and consequently squeezing out the juice. So that the oranges don't explode, a cutter in the bottom cup simultaneously makes a hole in each orange, forcing out the juice.
A coarse strainer then separates the pulpy juice from the peel, seeds and other pieces. A finer strainer then separates the pulp from the juice.
Next finished juice is fed to the outdoor evaporators, rocket-shaped stainless steel tubes that remove water vapor from the juice via vacuum. The heat in the evaporators also pasteurizes the juice, to destroy the yeast and bacteria that could spoil it. Pasteurization also deactivates the enzyme that would break down the "cloud" of suspended particles that gives orange juice its body. Orange juice that is not pasteurized becomes clear and light-colored.
Before the concentrate is frozen, Citrus World -- like other processors -- adds parts of the orange back. Some pulp is returned, as are orange oils pressed from the peels and orange aroma removed during the evaporation process. (Orange aromas and oils are also sold to companies for flavoring in orange drinks, perfumes, gelatin and so on.)
The amount of pulp, aroma and oil that is reincorporated into the concentrate accounts more for the taste differences among competitors' products than the amount of sugar in the juice, according to Gaffney. While the government sets minimum and maximum amounts of sugar that can be in orange juice, most Florida processors blend their juices to similar sugar levels, Gaffney says.
While the concentrate is frozen in the tank farm and stored until blended or reconstituted, the remaining peels and seeds undergo an entirely different process. Lime (as in calcium oxide) is added, the mixture is chopped and pounded, and the extracted liquid is pressed and evaporated into commercial citrus molasses. It is sold to companies that distill alcohol.
The remaining peel mixture is then dried, extruded, cut into inch-size pellets and sold as feed for dairy cows.
According to Cliff Beasely, executive vice president of the Florida Citrus Processors Association, 85 percent of the feed produced by Florida citrus processors is exported to Europe. "You try to talk an Iowa farmer into feeding his cows anything other than corn and you're not going to get very far," Beasely said.
RONNIE'S CARIBBEAN SKEWERED CHICKEN WITH ORANGE-LIME SAUCE (4 servings)
Extra strips of peeled orange and lime zest make a colorful topping, but be sure not to include any of the bitter white layer.
4 boned, skinned chicken breasts, cut into 1- to 1 1/2-inch cubes
FOR THE MARINADE:
3 tablespoons light soy sauce
3 tablespoons red wine or balsamic vinegar
Juice and grated zest of 2 large oranges
Juice of 1 lime
1 tablespoon dark rum (optional)
1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger root
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or to taste)
2 crushed garlic cloves
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon chili oil
4 tablespoons cre`me frai~che or lowfat yogurt
Rice for serving
Combine the marinade ingredients and add the chicken cubes. Marinate at least 20 minutes at room temperature or overnight in the refrigerator.
Drain marinade into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer while threading the chicken onto skewers. Broil or grill the chicken skewers until firm and done (about 5 minutes on each side depending on the intensity of the heat source). Do not overcook. Remove and keep warm.
While the chicken is cooking, bring sauce to to a boil and reduce it by about half. Lower heat and whisk in the cre`me frai~che or yogurt. Heat through but do not allow to boil or it will curdle.
Serve sauce over chicken skewers and rice.
ORANGE CURRY BUTTER (6 to 8 servings)
4 tablespoons butter or margarine
2 tablespoons orange juice
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon curry powder
Melt butter in a small saucepan. Add other ingredients and cook until blended. Use orange curry butter on vegetables such as carrots, cauliflower or butternut squash, or to brush grilled shrimp or fish fillets.
VANILLA FROZEN YOGURT WITH GRAND MARNIER-SOAKED ORANGES AND CRUSHED AMARETTI COOKIES (4 servings)
Grand Marnier to cover
Vanilla frozen yogurt
1/4 cup crushed Amaretti di Saronno cookies
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
Peel oranges and slice horizontally. Cut each orange slice along its membranes so that the slice is divided into 10 or 12 triangular-shaped sections. Place orange sections in a shallow dish and cover with a shallow layer of Grand Marnier. Marinate for at least 2 hours.
To serve, place a scoop or two of frozen yogurt in a dish. Scatter orange sections around it and sprinkle with cookie crumbs and grated orange zest.
MONTICELLO GOURMET'S ORANGE CUMIN BEEF STEW (4 to 6 servings)
Oil for saute'ing
1 1/2 pounds lean stew beef, cut in 1-inch cubes
1/4 cup orange juice
Grated zest of 1 orange
1/4 cup beef broth, plus more as needed
1/2 6-ounce can tomato paste
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon light brown sugar or less to taste
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons oregano
2 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 teaspoon allspice
1 bay leaf
10-ounce package frozen pearl onions
1/2 pound small fresh mushrooms
1 tablespoon butter
Couscous for serving
Heat a thin layer of oil in a large saucepan. Saute' the beef a few pieces at a time, turning to brown on all sides. Transfer beef to a large pot and add all the other ingredients except the onions, mushrooms and butter. Simmer, covered, for about 2 1/2 hours, or until beef is tender. If sauce becomes too thick, add additional broth or water as stew cooks.
Cook onions. Saute' mushrooms in butter and add them and the onions to the stew. Simmer briefly again and serve with couscous.
Adapted from "The New Carry-Out Cuisine," by Phyllis Me'ras with Linda Glick Conway (Houghton Mifflin Co., $12.95)