Oranges and us: a tale of sweet success

By Ruth Joseph, February 26, 2009

We sometimes take oranges for granted. They sit in the fruit bowl neglected in favour of a juicy peach or a bunch of grapes, and yet, now, like all citrus, they are at their seasonal best and good value.

The orange (Citrus Sinensis) probably originated in China and evidence of its existence dates from 2500 BCE. But it was a wild plant and its fruits would have been very sour. For thousands of years, oranges seem to have been enjoyed solely by the Chinese.

However, in the 1st century CE, the Romans, searching for new and exotic plants, found some saplings in India and began to import them to the port of Ostia. When Rome fell in the 5th century, so did the orange trade. So it was left to the Moors who, after conquering the lands, settled and then replanted the orange and lemon orchards. These could be seen from Seville to Granada and parts of Portugal.

Oranges were transported and sold to the rest of the world by Jewish merchants. Because of centuries of persecution and antisemitic restrictions, Jews were forced into trading and money lending — many other careers had been forbidden — and so became successful merchants.

By Medieval times, Jewish merchants were referred to as Radhanites and dominated trade between the Christian and Islamic worlds, establishing some of the famous trade routes. Although they primarily dealt in small-bulk, high-demand commodities such as spices and silks, there is no doubt that citrus would have been hugely valuable. They also wanted to control and market the etrog — a valuable commodity in Jewish religious life.

In this country, Jews began trading as soon as they were allowed to return in 1656. By the 1850s, London’s orange market was almost entirely organised and run by Jewish merchants. Many of them established homes in the East End of London. Some had fled from the pogroms of Eastern Europe and, needing to feed large families, advanced from peddling to become merchants.

So the orange is very much part of our past and precious to both Ashkenazim and Sephardim. Indeed, when the Talmud talks of “the sweet citron”, it probably meant the orange.

Oranges contain beta carotene, calcium, magnesium, thiamine and vitamin B6 and are powerhouses of nutrition. They are super-foods.

Try a fragrant Sephardic recipe that mixes orange-juice with crushed garlic, honey, oil, cinnamon and ground coriander to liberally spread over chicken before roasting, or follow my Ashkenazi mother’s method: cook the turkey giblets with a cut up onion and orange, and stuff the cavity of a turkey or chicken with more orange chunks to enhance the flavour.

A rich carrot tsimmes is made perfect by the addition of orange juice; and a warm beetroot salad can be transformed into a colourful, dinner-party side-dish by chopping up one large orange, peel and all, and microwaving it with a pack of vacuum-packed beetroot (without vinegar), cut into similar sizes. When cooled, add chopped mint, chives and freshly ground black pepper. A bread and butter pudding can be spread with a tart marmalade, which cuts through the sweetness.

Oranges marry well with new season’s champagne rhubarb, delicious baked in orange juice, or layered with peeled orange slices, sweetened and spiced with pieces of chopped stem ginger. And save orange rinds before peeling, then grate and mix with castor sugar to flavour future puddings, ice-creams and custards.

Chocolate and Orange Dainty

Serves 4

● 50g, 2oz self-raising flour
● 1 vanilla pod, deseeded
● 120g, 4oz soft brown Muscovado sugar — fair trade if possible
● 50g, 2oz margarine plus a little for greasing
● 2 free-range organic eggs, separated
● 300ml, 10floz, ½ pint soya milk
● The juice and zest of 1 orange — careful not to grate the bitter pith
● 175 g, 6oz 70 per cent dark chocolate chopped finely

● Set the oven to 180˚C, 350F, gas mark 4 and grease a 1.2 litre, 2 – 2 ½ pint, oven-proof dish and a dish of water to set into it so that the mixture cooks gently.
● Chop chocolate finely and set aside. Separate yolks and whites of eggs.
● Place whites in a grease-free bowl. Deseed vanilla pod and add seeds to the margarine.
● (Place the pod in some castor sugar to add flavour). Cream the sugar with the margarine until light and fluffy. Add egg yolks, flour, chopped chocolate and orange juice.
● The mixture may curdle but this will not affect the outcome of the pudding.
Now whisk whites and fold into orange mixture, keeping as much of the lightness as possible.
● Pour mixture into the oven proof dish, bake 45-50 mins approx until golden, then set on the top.
● You can make it in advance and microwave to reheat.
Omit the chocolate if you wish, perhaps substitute a handful of raspberries.

Last updated: 12:23pm, February 26 2009