Special Report By Susan Etchey
LAKEPORT, FL. -- The harvest of the rare sour orange is cause for a yearly celebration in a small fishing resort on the north shore of Lake Okeechobee. Sour oranges are prolific in this remote wilderness region, the ancient trees growing wild in cattle pastures and homesteads. The tropical fruit once grew all over the state but due to development was purposely destroyed. Only in pastoral Florida will you find so many of these treasured trees.
If you love sour oranges, this is the place to be. You can taste and purchase sour orange pies, sour orange BBQ sauce Caribbean style, and sour oranges at Lakeport's Sour Orange Festival on Saturday, February 11th from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Prepare yourself for a simple festival in a tree-shaded park. The commercialism and noise of most festivals is absent. It is more akin to an old-fashioned community picnic where half the people in attendance know each other. Long time residents meet up here after not having seen each other for a time; local politicians are out slapping backs; snowbirds living in local RV parks bring their folding chairs to sit in the community park and listen to local bands play from the outdoor stage.
You can wander casually through a few rows of vendors and encounter hard working artisans selling their own special handmade products, or talk to members of civic groups who get a space for free.
In 1992, locals decided to celebrate the origins and unique culinary uses of the sour orange with this one-of-a-kind annual festival as a fundraiser. The original Sour Orange Cookbook, published by the Lakeport Community Association in 1992, speaks of the traditional uses of sour oranges by the Gladesmen who hunted the wild hogs in the hammocks near Lake Okeechobee. "There are two traditions that must be observed when roasting wild hog in Lakeport," it states. "First it is considered to be a man's job (and the men definitely hold bragging rights to how well they can cook pork); second, basting of the hog with the juice of the Sour Orange is essential." However, locals have found basting fish and chicken with the juice is very satisfying, too. In fact recipes using lemons can be substituted with sour oranges.
Brought here by the Spanish in their colonial period, sour orange trees have historical roots. Sour oranges were once the original rootstock for the creation of the sweet oranges that created the huge citrus industry in Florida.
Sour oranges are still grown commercially in Spain to make marmalade in Britain, sour orange peels make candies in Puerto Rico and the Mojito of Cuba is a zesty mixture of sour orange juice, garlic and other herbs, according to the cookbook. Liqueurs such as Cointreau, Grand Marnier and Curacao are made with sour oranges.
During the day, fun contests and games for both children and adults take place keeping the restless busy. The Sour Orange Bake-off and the Sour Orange Pie Eating contest are traditions, as well as a raffle of many intriguing items, including the winning pastries, jellies or specialty foods.
Tourists who happen to see a flyer about the festival or read about it in a local paper, come out of curiosity to taste the sour orange. They also get a taste of the friendly folks of old Florida. Nothing hectic, no crowds, just real laid back and simple entertainment making it a lovely no-headache day.
Lakeport is on the northwest side of Lake Okeechobee on Hwy 78 between Moore Haven and Okeechobee City. The event is at the community center on Old Lakeport Road. To find the Lakeport Community Association festival follow the signs. There is a parking fee of $1.