Dance the orange.
Who can forget it,
how, drowning in itself, it grew
against its being-sweet.
-Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus, 1,15
It’s not just the look of oranges glowing like lamps among dark green leaves that I love, it’s also their sweet acidic flavour and diverse culinary uses. According to the English food writer, Jane Grigson, in her Fruit Book, the word itself goes back to Dravidian India, narayan meaning ‘perfume within’. The Arabs took it from the Persians as narandj. Italians softened it to arancia and in medieval France arancia slipped into orange because the town of Orange was an important centre for the fruit.
Oranges seem to have come from either eastern India or southern China and to have been cultivated there as early as 2400BCE. Today, in southern China, they are associated with good fortune, orange (along with red and scarlet gold) being a religious colour connected with auspicious events. In Chinese medicine, the flesh of the orange is s believed to promote a healthy stomach and considered neither hot nor cold.
Oranges arrived in Italy at the end of the Roman Empire, taken there on Arab dhows, but were always rare and expensive and not heard about after the collapse of the empire. It was the Moors who, after conquering Spain in the eighth century, gradually revived them.
The early oranges were all bitter, belonging to the Citrus aurantium group, represented today by the Seville orange. This orange has wonderfully perfumed flowers, aromatic skin and sharp juice and remains popular today for making English marmalade.
The sweet orange (C. sinensis) was introduced to Europe in the fifteenth century, discovered by the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama in East Africa (which was on the Arab trade routes) on his way around the Cape of Good Hope in 1498. It is probably a mutant of the bitter orange and is widely represented today by the Valencia and Navel oranges. Apart form their delicious thirst-quenching flesh, the zest, rind and juice of these oranges enhances the flavour of many dishes such as the classic French Duck a l’orange and Provencale Fish Stew, stewed rhubarb and Compote of Dried Fruits, and the segments enliven salads such as Fennel & Black Olive and Moroccan Orange & Date.
“Its breadth of flavour characteristics ensures that orange is highly compatible with other flavours,” writes Niki Segnit in The Flavour Thesaurus. “Sweet orange has the fruitiest flavour of all citric, containing hints or mango and pineapple among its layers of generic citric flavours, along with mild hints of spice an herb.”
They’re also fabulous in cakes such as this delicate Orange Chiffon Cake and
Claudia Roden’s legendary Orange Almond Cake. Interestingly in her Book of Jewish Food, she writes that orange cakes are typical of all the Mediterranean Jewish communities, though they’re not usually found in local national cuisines.
“After the fall of the Roman Empire,” she says, “it was the Arabs who made the cultivation of oranges and lemons possible on a grand scale with their methods of irrigation, but the survival of citrus on the Mediterranean coasts is thought to be due to the agricultural activities of Jews…It is not surprising that there are dozens of recipes for orange cake and orange preserves in the Sephardi world.”
One of the popular variants of the sweet orange is the stunning red-streaked blood orange which probably originated in China though others claim they’re of Maltese or Sicilian origin. Jane Grigson has a recipe for Maltese Mayonnaise in her Fruit Book and says that ‘Maltese‘ in classic cookery means something flavoured with blood oranges.
In France, the Maltese Orange is referred to as the “Queen of Oranges” due to its exceptional colour and tangy flavour.
The Maltese Blood Orange was documented as one of the first citrus trees introduced to cultivation in Australia, making a recorded journey on board the First Fleet. The red streaks are due to anthocyanins and you might notice a berry, specifically raspberry, note to the sweetness.
Anna Tasca Lanza in The Flavors of Sicily says that blood oranges are commonplace in spring in Sicily, starting at the end of February with the Tarocco and ending with the Moro which is the smallest and darkest variety.
“In fact we juice them for breakfast; visitors to Regaleali are always surprised when they are handed a glass of that red orange juice.”
Juice some for breakfast today!
the blood orange sky
squeezed into the water’s depth
— rising for breakfast
by Kim Rodrigues, Sailor’s Warning (from Poetry Soup 2018)