Let's Eat

The perennial appeal of oranges

The citrus fruit has made a fascinating contribution to the culinary history of Europe and Israel


If the orange is the king of the citrus family, then the exotic Seville and the ravishing, marbled blood orange, all but disappeared from the shelves after their too-short season, are the golden girls, their innate attractions enhanced by the part they play in the history of this most fascinating of fruits.

Oranges may not be the only fruit, but the world would be drabber without them. The classic fruit of the winter months, the joyful orbs shine brightly through the murk and gloom; one can appreciate the lure of 1950s advertisements for juicy Jaffa oranges on London Routemasters trundling through the grey city streets.

In Israel, Jew and Arab once worked alongside each other to grow, pick and pack this fruit with ancient origins in the region. By the early 20th century, around 20,000 wooden crates of Jaffa oranges were shipped each year to Britain where they gave their name to the little cakes first commercially introduced in 1927 by McVitie and Price.

The shamouti, Palestine Jaffa or Cyprus oval had originated around 1844 near Jaffa, then part of the Ottoman Empire. It was a mutation of the local beledi strain and produced a fruit with outstanding flavour.

The route of oranges from China to the West was lengthy: starting with the sour or bitter orange, the first use was for either simple seasoning or ornamental purposes. It was probably in the Holy Land that warriors, pilgrims and merchants learned to use it as a condiment to enhance the bland and salty staple foods of northern Europe.

Renaissance cooks used the fruit, peel and juice in the same ostentatious way they would all precious commodities. The first written recipe for bitter oranges in German dates from 1485, when they are described as “small, sour apples from Italy” to be cooked with wine and cinnamon as a sauce for poultry and game.

Partridge with orange became such a culinary cliche that a political pamphlet of 1594 made the pithy charge, “a Spaniard without a Jesuit is like a partridge without an orange”. The theme was reprised in 19th-century France when ducklings a la bigarade were described as “a dish for an epicure of the daintiest palate”, around the same time as the debut of that other celebrated orange dish, crepes suzette.

In Elizabethan cooking, the whole fruit enhanced meat stews, slices made a colourful garnish to dishes, and the peel was candied.

Today, the Seville orange is largely reserved for marmalade-making: the British are the greatest consumers of a crop that otherwise would largely go to waste, although they do make a distinctive appearance in Cadiz fish soup.

Orangemania grew rapidly once the sweet orange reached European shores, despite the fact it either had to be expensively imported or cultivated in orangeries.

Conspicuous consumption was the name of the game. In 1529, the Archbishop of Milan served a banquet of several hundred dishes that included: salad of herbs and citron cut into the initials of guests’ names; caviar fried with oranges covered with sugar and cinnamon, and sparrows fried with oranges.

Sweet oranges were used in puddings, creamy concoctions, sauces, cakes and biscuits. Trade boomed, the fruit bowl was never to be the same again, and eventually Jaffa became a household name.

Although Israeli citrus orchards are undergoing something of a revival, a lot of fruit that bears the Jaffa label comes from countries that have bought the budwood and permission to use the trademark name.

Oranges still play a major part in Israel’s cuisine, from carrot and orange salad to orange and almond cakes.
Zest, peel, and juice are parts of a fruit that has become indispensable, and whose beauty remains, as an Arab poet once described, “like blazing fire amongst the emerald boughs”.

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