It is the tail end of citrus time here in Greece. That means our lemons, limes, mandarins, bitter nerantzia (otherwise known as Sevilles), my first crop of bergamots, and our rather sour “sweet” oranges in the garden have been harvested or the last ones are still clinging to the trees. This meant marmalade, candied peel, mounds of zest, zingy sorbets and all manner of things citrus – savoury and sweet. The market was also flooded with citrus. There was no escaping it.
Meanwhile, I’ve seemed to have recently acquired a number of citrus references around the theme.
by John McPhee
London: Daunt Books 1995
Citrus: The Food Programme
BBC Radio 4
13 February 2017
The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and its Citrus Fruits
by Helena Attlee
Woodstock, VT: The Countryman Press 2014
Oranges, a little booklet published in 1967, was a holiday gift from a Sicilian friend. It is a tale of the orange – its origins, its history and spread worldwide, the commercial production of oranges (primarily in Florida) and about the people who grow, pick and study the vast variety of citrus fruits that fall under the generic category of “orange”. The podcast from BBC Radio 4 presented by Sheila Dillon came next – thanks to Ardys, an inveterate listener of podcasts who introduced me to The Food Programme. Interspersed with cooking with citrus, Dillon discusses interesting details on the genus. A guest speaker on the program was Helena Attlee, the author of The Land Where Lemons Grow – a book about more than lemons. After listening to her it was a must buy for me – a brilliantly written history of citrus in Italy by someone best known for her books on historical gardens.
In the podcast (as well as in her book), Attlee discusses the origin of citrus, starting with three ancestral fruits from which all varieties descend. These are the mandarin from China, the pomelo from Mylasia, and the citron from India. It helps that all fruits in the citrus genus cross-pollinate very easily. This has the potential to create infinite varieties. In Europe, citron was brought to Calabria by the Jewish diaspora after Trajan’s destruction of the Temple in Jerusalum in A.D.70. Then in the year 831 when the first Arab settlers arrived in Sicily, they introduced sour oranges and lemons. The Moors a little later brought bitter oranges to Spain – hence the origin of “Sevilles”. From these locations, the genus spread, cross-pollinated and thrived.
Although the podcast was very enjoyable to listen to, I benefited more from reading the books. I learned that the sweetest oranges were to be found on near the top of the tree on the south side (McPhee) and that the sweetest part of an orange is at the blossom end opposite the stem (McPhee and Attlee). Another little fact was that lemons contain quite a bit more vitamin C than limes. Attlee indicates that this point was dramatically made when a mid-19th century British Arctic exploration nearly perished from scurvy due to the fact that they provisioned lime juice (preserved in large barrels) rather then lemon juice. McPhee says British sailors beginning in the 17th century were provisioned with lime juice to be added to their grog and became of this became known as limeys. But, elsewhere I’ve learned that the terms lemon and lime were used interchangeably at the time, so it might well have been lemon juice in that grog.
An anecdote from McPhee’s book mentioned Sicilian pickers of bergamots were naturally darkly tanned from the oils found in the aromatic citrus skins. Attlee, displaying her horticultural leanings, gives the bergamot’s pedigree: begat by a natural cross-pollination between a lemon and a sour orange. This was said to have occurred in Calabria (the toe of Italy’s boot) in the mid-17th century. Attlee goes on to say that it is grown primarily for its essential oil and used extensively as a fixing agent in perfume. As early as the 18th century, Calabrian bergamots were a major export to Cologne where there was a perfume industry, hence the use of the term “cologne” for the scented product. It was only during the 19th century that bergamot oil was used to produce the distinctive Earl Grey tea.
McPhee also mentioned the blood orange was popular in Europe, but not favoured in the US – indicating that the red streaks frightened consumers (an odd thought and probably out of date as he was writing back in the 1960s). Conversely, a (perhaps spurious) claim on the benefits of blood oranges that Attlee mentions is the juice from blood oranges limits weight gain and increases the resistance to obesity.
Bitter oranges, too, have interesting moments. McPhee mentions the 17th century Dutch fad of suspending a peeled bitter orange (with peel still attached to the fruit) in wine and other alcoholic beverages. In many Dutch paintings of the time, oranges often appeared beside a glass of wine. The combination of bitter orange and gin eventually led to the invention of “bitters”. According to Attlee, bitter oranges from Seville were not shipped in bulk to Britain until the 18th century when marmalade production began on an industrial scale.
This is only a taster of the interesting history and social life of citrus. There is much more to learn. I recommend you look into one, two or all three of these sources to discover the world of citrus for yourself.