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Foothills seeing orange: Mountain Mandarin Festival returns to Auburn

By: Krissi Khokhobashvili Journal Features Editor
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Thousands of mandarins will make their way from the field to the fairgrounds this weekend, enticing citrus lovers with not only the fruit itself, but also an array of food, beverages and mandarin merchandise. That’s right: It’s time for the Mountain Mandarin Festival. Friday, Saturday and Sunday will see thousands of people head to the Gold Country Fairgrounds for the 18th annual fest. Executive Director Gary Gilligan said upward of 20,000 people head to Auburn for the fest each year, and this year promises new additions and tried-and-true mandarin experiences. “The festival is the grand-opening party for the Placer County mandarins,” Gilligan sfrom soaps and candles to apparel and home décor. “There’s an oxygen bar that has mandarin,” Gilligan said. “They hook you up and you can breathe the essence of natural herbs and spices.” The Mountain Mandarin Festival began in 1994 when the Newcastle Area Business Association hosted it in the Newcastle Town Square with three mandarin growers and 15 vendors. Because the mandarin crop is dictated by Mother Nature, Gilligan said, as the festival grew, some years it was hard to keep enough fruit on hand for hungry fest-goers. “There have been times we were out at noon, back in the early days,” he said. “Now, with 88 official mandarin growers in Placer County, there’s a lot of fruit out there.” Gilligan praised his planning committee and volunteers, and emphasized that the event is a fundraiser for several area organizations, including the Newcastle Area Business Association, Mandarin Orange Education Foundry, Newcastle Fire Department, Newcastle Lions Club and Newcastle Elementary School Parent-Teacher Club. Ralene Snow’s Newcastle farm, Snow’s Citrus Court, has been with the festival since it began. She explained that the fruit is so popular here because Placer County is the perfect environment for the Satsuma mandarin. “It’s like growing something where it’s supposed to grow, and it just tastes better,” she said. Snow praised Gilligan for his work on the festival and his commitment to make it an education – and fun – family friendly experience. “There are people who will tell you about growing the trees, or raising the trees,” Snow said. “You can talk to people like Master Gardeners or PlacerGROWN. We personally always encourage people to plant a few trees in containers because they’re pretty, they’re ornamental, and there’s a bounty, too.” Jan Thompson of Newcastle Produce said this year’s crop, overall, is average in terms of the amount of fruit. She has also seen larger fruit this year. While Thompson said one of her favorite ways to eat a mandarin is atop a green salad, the fruit is extremely versatile and fun to experiment with. “They’re easy to work with, because they’re easy to peel and there are no seeds to deal with. You can use the juice in recipes anywhere the recipe calls for orange juice.” For people interested in all things mandarin, the Mountain Mandarin Festival is the place to be this weekend. Gilligan said every food vendor is required to serve something with mandarins on their menu, and the selection includes mandarin funnel cakes and beignets, hot wings, flan, chicken and Hawaiian mandarin pork. Sunday’s recipe contest will draw entries from all over Placer County, and the entries run the gamut from cheesecakes and salads to chutney and chicken. Gilligan said he visits 40 fairs and festivals throughout the year, looking for vendors and ideas for Mountain Mandarin Festival. He said that while the event has grown immensely over the years, its focus remains on the fruit, and the people who grow and eat it in Placer County. “We’ve gotten more growers to plant fruit,” he said. “More people have planted fruit and realized that there’s a great health benefit to the mandarins that we grow here in Placer County. It has just been our little hidden gem.” Reach Krissi Khokhobashvili at krissik@goldcountrymedia.com. ------------------------ Mountain Mandarin Festival When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, Nov. 18; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 19; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 20. Where: Gold Country Fairgrounds, 1273 High St., Auburn Cost: $2 general admission Friday, then $6 general admission Saturday ($4 for seniors; kids under 12 free). Parking is $5 (some street parking available). More information: www.mandarinfestival.com More than mere mandarins Mandarins are no doubt the centerpiece of the festival, but there will also be live entertainment each day. Uruguayan musician Sebastian Sidi will present his “Smokin’ Hot Piano” each day, getting audiences fired up with his performance that includes smoke, hydraulics and neon lights. Renowned hypnotist Susan Rosen will perform, and Frank Thurston will present his family-friendly magic show. Several local dance groups and musicians will perform as well. See a complete schedule at www.mandarinfestival.com. The MandaRun 2011 will be held Sunday, Nov. 20. The 5K and 10K marathons start and finish at The Blue Goose Fruit Shed in Loomis. Registration and check-in are at 8 a.m.; the race starts at 9 a.m. The half-marathon starts at 8 a.m. at the Gold Country Fairgrounds in Auburn and finishes at the Blue Goose Fruit Shed. Check-in begins at 7 a.m. The marathons are a fundraiser for the Loomis Basin Education Foundation; see more details at www.lbef.net.