Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A drive through Florida’s southern Heartland – the Florida you won’t find in the tourist guide books including orange groves & sugarcane fields


We’re currently at our little “home away from home” in Ft. Myers, Florida. Our plans were to escape the cold weather at home and enjoy some of Florida’s typical balmy days. So far that hasn’t happened but the weather seems to be improving today. As you’ve seen in the news, it’s been very cold in Florida with temperatures dropping into the low thirties for several nights, which caused great alarm to the citrus growers and farmers of the area and upset my husband because it killed his freshly planted basil and some of the shrubbery.

Yesterday we were suffering from cabin fever so we drove from Ft. Myers, which is in southwest Florida on the Gulf of Mexico to Stuart on the east coast on the Atlantic Ocean just north of Palm Beach – about a three hour drive. Our route on Highway 27 and 80 east took us along the orange groves and sugarcane fields in Florida’s Heartland, a place likely you haven’t been and you won’t find it in the tourist guide books. Above is an orange tree in a grove along the way. Notice the ice under the trees. We’ve seen on the nightly news that growers have sprayed their trees with water to help prevent damage to the fruit.


Ice at base of orange tree

We drove through the small towns of Clewiston, South Bay, Belle Glade and Pahokee, through the sugarcane fields along the southern tip of Lake Okeechobee. Even though Belle Glade and Pahokee are in western Palm Beach County, it’s not the ritzy Palm Beach of Donald Trump, famous stars and Carmine’s Gourmet Deli that we visited last week. This part of Palm Beach County is referred to as “Muck City,” according to Wikipedia, due to the large quantity of muck in which sugarcane grows. About half of the sugarcane in the nation is grown in the plains around Belle Glade and Clewiston. This area is more associated with the Florida Heartland than south Florida. According to the Florida Plants website, the sugarcane area is so compact that most Florida visitors never see a sugarcane field so we took some pictures of the various stages of the sugarcane’s growth.



We took pictures along the way of the various stages of sugarcane fields. The fields are replanted every two to four years. Notice the little plants coming up in the coal black earth known as muck.



Sugarcane is a tropical grass native to Asia and the plumes you see here blowing in the wind are the flowers and seed heads of the cane plant. Each plume contains several thousand tiny flowers and each flower is capable of producing one seed. The cool winter weather in Florida ordinarily prevents the development of the seeds. Sugarcane is harvested from late October through mid-April. Florida is the largest producer of sugarcane and there are two sugar refineries here, one in South Bay and the other in Clewiston, which their Chamber of Commerce calls “America’s sweetest town.”

The Florida Plant website attributes the fertile organic soil and warming influence of Lake Okeechobee as the primary reasons the sugar industry is located here. The cane fields run along the south side of the lake and the built-up dikes.


Locals call Lake Okeechobee “The Lake” or “The Big O.” According to Wikipedia, it’s the second largest freshwater lake in the continental US after Lake Michigan. It’s about half the size of the state of Rhode Island and is shallow with an average depth of only nine feet.


Locks before entrance to the lake

Boats use the Okeechobee waterway to cut cross the state of Florida to avoid going around the southern tip by the Florida Keys. From the East Coast boaters take the Inter-coastal waterway to Stuart and the St. Lucie River or they can enter from the Gulf of Mexico from the Caloosahatchee River in Ft. Myers. The boats go through a series of locks from Stuart into the actual Lake itself.


Here’s a gorgeous cabin cruiser, probably fifty feet long, with beautiful bright work traveling along the waterway. As you can see, the waterway is narrow and reminiscent of the Everglades. We didn’t see any alligators, but it sure looks like a place you would find them.


We picked up some fresh oranges and tangerines and made a simple Orange Salad when we returned home to go with grilled chicken breasts for dinner. It’s a hastily made, colorful salad of thinly sliced oranges and black Kalamata olives dressed in vinaigrette and sprinkled with fresh Italian parsley and fresh rosemary and slivered red onions. You can also use blood oranges, which make it even more beautiful. I found this recipe in one of Pierre Franey’s 60-Minute Gourmet cookbooks many years ago.

I toss thinly sliced oranges in a bowl with vinaigrette of one part red wine vinegar to three parts extra virgin olive oil seasoned with minced garlic, some Hungarian paprika and salt and pepper to taste and dress as above. You can leave out the black olives or the rosemary if you wish. I’m a big fan of rosemary, as you know, so I use it whenever I can.

43 comments:

  1. Sam...lovely pictures and description of them! Enjoyed very much. The fresh orange salad looks absolutely refreshing :-)

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  2. Oh how I love this post! I have seen sugarcane in its adult stage and did not know what it was until I ask, so cool for you to share this. I keep hearing about how the drop in temperature will affect the orange groves, so I am hoping it does not raise the price too much.

    Your orange plate would be gobbled up right away in my house, we love orange salads! Citrus anything for that fact...

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  3. You're right, those are the pictures and views of Florida that one rarely sees.

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  4. I really enjoyed this posting. We lived in Dothan, AL many years ago and would go down to the beach in Florida and see lots of things not normally associated with the tourist part of FL. I learned a lot from your post about sugar cane. Thanks.
    The orange salad looks so refreshing.

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  5. Though I grew up in Tampa I never got down to the sugar cane fields. Thanks for sharing the pictures! And I wish I had some oranges in the house right now -- that salad looks wonderful!

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  6. I lived in Florida for 32 years and I can assure you that Orlando, Disney, and tourist traps were not my favorite places. My favorite places were beaches like Crossroads or Writing On The Road off of A1A. I also love the horse country of Ocala and the small towns. St Augustine gets my one "tourist trap" exemption :) There's a lot to see in Florida if you get off the beaten track.

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  7. I've never been to Florida but I surely do appreciate this back roads tour. You post was very informative, I didn't know that FL was a large producer of sugar cane. The soil is impressively dark and rich. Thanks for bringing us along!

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  8. Bonjour Sam,
    Oh thank you so much for this tour of Florida. I lived in Florida since I was a kid before moving to Paris. I still have lots of friends and family there so I've heard about this very unusual cold snap.
    All my years in FLorida and I've never seen a sugar cane field.
    Stay warm in the Sunshine State!

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  9. my grandfather would grow sugarcane occasionally and what a treat it was - the salad looks good - and so does the photo *wink* *wink*

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  10. What gorgeous photos, Sam! My inlaws live in Marco Island Fl, and their orange tree died off.. she was so upset, but her grapefruit one is kicking still.

    Your salad may have been hastily thrown together as you say, but it looks beyond beautiful to me.

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  11. Nice to learn about the sugar cane industry and I love the salad. It looks really yummy!

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  12. Happy New Year, Sam! How I'd love to take this roadtrip. The scenery is not the conventional "Oh, what lovely landscape!"; rather, it's a marvelous glimpse of the ecosystems and agriculture that keep us supplied with such foods as the oranges that make up your delicious salad.

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  13. Sam, what a nice road trip. We lived in Port St. Lucie for 6 years and are quite familiar with the Stuart area. Have never seen the sugar cane fields. Just might have to change our route over to the coast.

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  14. Thx for taking me with on the trip, it was most enjoyable!!! I love to pair citrus with chicken so this will definitely be made in this house soon!!!

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  15. love your blog Sam I always learn so much, love FL oh and amazing salad have fun

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  16. This is a gorgeous salad full of fresh flavors and pretty as well. I love each and every one of your photos. It has been so long since I last visited Florida.

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  17. What a beautiful tour. It's been a long time since I've been to Florida. I am always amazed when I get outside "the big city" what wonderful open spaces you can discover. And, how nice to be able to pick some oranges for your salad! It must have tasted incredible!

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  18. I loved this armchair tour of Southern Florida Sam. I always find it hard to believe in snow and ice when I think of Florida, but times are changing.

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  19. Very interesting tour Sam. We were down that way last March. Hope it gets warmer for you - it is suppossed to by the end of the week. The orange salad looks great. A neighbor just gave us some oranges that they picked from their tree before the freezes began.

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  20. Dear Sam,

    I have never been to the USA, let alone Florida!

    Thanks for sharing this with us!
    picking oranges yourself to make that yummie salad : that is just great!

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  21. We grew up with sugar cane. My FIL grew up on a sugar cane plantation. The stuff smeels so bad when they are harvesting usually around Christmas time.

    Wonderful post Sam, you're right many people not from the Gulf South rarely get to see this side of FL.

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  22. What interesting post, Sam!
    Thank you for taking the time to collect all the information for us. I did not know about the Okeechobee waterway to cut across Florida, even though "The Big O" is a favorite place of mine.

    Just before coming here I read about the cold weather catastrophe down South. I hope the weather stabilizes soon.

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  23. I agree - LOVELY photos. Thanks for sharing the experience first hand. AND, I'm totally loving that salad...it looks simply amazing.

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  24. Thanks for sharing the pictures with us. This sounds like a great place. Some day I'll be spending my winters in a warm place.

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  25. I've never been to southern FL - only northern - even though I have family in Fort Myers. I loved the travels across the state - the expanse of the sugar cane fields, the locks and of course you know I loved that ending with the incredible tasty and wonderfully simple orange salad. I'd keep the olives!

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  26. Thanks for taking us on this great tour! We were hoping to be in Florida this week but unfortunately things didn't work out :( The fresh orange salad looks just lovely!

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  27. I loved all the pictures. They definitely show a side of FL that most of us do not ever see. Your orange salad looks gorgeous. Just looking at it puts me in a bright and sunny mood.

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  28. Hmmmm...I've lived in FL and I never saw a sugar cane field before! I feel left out!

    Yes they do spray trees and plants with water during a hard freeze and the ice protects the plants from the cold air.

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  29. Love the sound of that salad.........wowo

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  30. This is one of my all time favorite salads. LOVE it!

    Beautiful photography. I feel s if I am there, peeking over your shoulder.

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  31. Thank you for sharing your road trip; those are definitely sights I never would have seen in my life if it weren't for you!

    Beautiful photography, and your orange salad is a masterpiece! Just lovely. xo

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  32. Sam,
    Thanks for sharing this fantastic tour of Fla. The photos are great and it makes me want to take off the Fla. The salad looks delicious, too. Your postings are always so uplifting.

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  33. such lovely pictures. For all the time I've spent in Alabama, I've never been to Florida. Seems kinda silly.

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  34. Looks all so familiar! Thank you for bringing back to my memory these great landscapes from Florida!

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  35. I was born and raised in South Florida. It has been awhile since I have spent time in the west part of south Florida, with the endless landscapes of sugarcane and tomato farms (industries that raised significant controversy over the abuse of migrant workers) It is a part of South Florida that folks rarely see or experience.

    Your fresh orange salad looks delicious. A perfect Florida Winter salad.

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  36. I like the idea of the orange salad. I'll have to try it, and quick before the oranges go up. 70% of the Florida crop is ruined by the weather.
    We live south of Melbourne. We have severe damage to our yard by the freezing weather. Hopefully, most will survive.
    Ciao!

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  37. What beautiful pictures. Such scenery.

    Your salad holds it own with the photos. Very nice.

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  38. I hope you get some warmer weather sometime soon! Nice photos!

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  39. I live in Palm Beach County -- but this was still very informative to me. Much I didn't know. Sometimes, we just don't stop to smell the roses -- or sugarcane!

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  40. Hi, Sam... I enjoyed your tour very much.

    I have been just heartsick for the growers in Florida. I'm sure they didn't sleep for weeks as they stay up into the night fighting the cold, firing the groves with smudge pots and using irrigation, too. Seeing that ice near the Glades says it all.

    I heard from a friend that the people on well water around Plant City were in trouble because the farmers had to use so much water to protect the crops. I don't like cold anyhow, but I particularly don't like it when it jeporadizes so much in the local farming economy. Trees can look "okay," but as with the freeze in the late Eighties, this one has likely done damage to the trees themselves. Driving north through the Ocala National Forest the other day, I could tell the groves that had been protected and the ones that hadn't.

    But on a happier note, your salad looks delicious! :-)

    XO,

    Sheila

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  41. Sam, thank you for so much wonderful information and all the beautiful photos. Love the orange salad, have never used paprika with oranges, I must try it.

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  42. I grew up in Florida, spent winters picking oranges in the Indian River groves and remember one trip to see the sugar cane plantations, yet I have never been down your way. It looks just lovely! Thanks for sharing and bringing me home!

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  43. Sam, your tour brought back lots of memories for me. I grew up in Atlanta, and we often went to St. Simons Island in the summer. From there, Florida is just a short hop away. The orange groves were always a highlight of our visits.

    Your orange salad looks wonderful. I love citrus salads in the winter--they brighten up the gray days.

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Sam