The first thing that struck me about our garden here in Athens was the large number of orange trees. I was told that most of these trees are a variety known as νεραντζιά (nerantzia) and was warned that they were bitter, not for eating – that is, peeling and eating raw. These bitter types of oranges are hardier and do better in the slightly cooler Attic climate than sweet oranges, Citrus sinensis, which grow well in the Peloponnese and areas further south. There are, however, several sweet orange trees also growing in the garden, but they tend to produce small slightly sour fruits – naturally, perfect for making orange curd.
Looking at an old pre-WWII plan of the gardens, I was surprised to discover that a number of the nerantzia trees were in the same locations as they are now, although not necessarily the same tree, but perhaps younger replacements. However, they were all labelled “Seville oranges”. It made me wonder if this was a matter of misidentification of the bitter oranges (νεραντζιά) on the part of the compiler of the plan. What I discovered was, botanically, both identifications are correct. Mary Jaqueline Tyrwhitt, in her book Making a Garden on a Greek Hillside, about her garden at Sparoza, lists νεραντζιά and Sevilles as the same bitter orange (citrus aurantium). In other words, the νεραντζιά are Seville oranges.
Moreover, the Greek word νεραντζιά is probably derived from the Spanish naranjas, simply a common Spanish name for what we call in English, the Seville, bitter or marmalade orange. Both the Greek and Spanish words are ultimately derived from the Persian naraj which was adopted into Arabic. Naraj, it seems, travelled along with the fruit, in the wake of the Arab conquests in Spain, Portugal and Sicily during the middle ages. As an aside, I also learned that a Southern Indian (Tamil) pickle condiment is made from immature green bitter oranges called narthangai, another word derived from the Persian naraj. Interesting how words (and oranges) migrate!
In the past, bitter orange trees were commonly used in urban landscaping in many Greek cities, as they were in numerous other Mediterranean countries. Ellen Bosanquet, the subject of a previous post, refers to Athens as “a city of orange trees” in her 1932 publication, The Tale of Athens. Tyrwhitt, a former professor of urban planning, mentions that many of the orange trees of Athens had been cut down by the time she was writing in the 1980s. However, if you go walking in the city, you can still observe in many public spaces, such as museums and churches, orange trees growing in front or in their courtyards. In fact, a lovely photograph taken by a member of the Mediterranean Garden Society and posted on their Facebook page shows the Byzantine church of Panagia Kapnikarea in downtown Athens with a flourishing bitter orange tree growing in front. The photo above is one I took of bitter oranges growing in the courtyard of The Byzantine and Christian Museum, once the 19th-century Villa Ilissia, the winter residence of Sophie Lebrun, Duchess of Plaisance. Note the urban foragers gathering the νεραντζιά.
Streets, here and there, are also still lined with bitter orange trees, many looking rather scraggly. I was warned that the pollution from the cars seeping into the skins and fruit has now rendered these street-side trees simply ornamental, and not useful as food. Luckily, the oasis of our gardens, ringed by high walls, has protected the oranges that grow here from the worst of the pollutants and we do use them in the kitchen after careful cleaning.
In Greece, the νεραντζιά are traditionally used to produce γλυκό (spoon sweets, candied rolled strips of peel in syrup). The spoon sweet shown above was made by S’s mother and at some point, I am going to have to ask for a tutorial in how to make them. Since these are bitter oranges – Sevilles – the νεραντζιά are also used quite effectively to make marmalade. I have also made candied peel (chocolate covered, of course), and lovely curd from the juice (used to make creamy ice creams). Recently, I saw a newspaper article on alternative uses for Seville oranges that included using the juice in vinaigrette and for making homemade orange mayonnaise. I am also toying with the notion of making a bitter orange chicken dish similar to a simple lemon chicken, and the possibility of using them with fish as one would use lemon juice. The uses are as limited as the imagination.