The 4,000 year evolution of the citrus fruit
By Suzanne Biro
I grew up in South-eastern Ontario where then, like now, the winter temperatures dip below minus-20 degrees for days at a time. Warm beach vacations are usually the only way to boost morale at this time of year, but the four children in my family made vacationing a budget affair. For Spring Break my family would pile into the van for the three day drive to sunny Florida. The drive was far from pleasant; my father was notorious for "mind navigation" so there were countless arguments between him and my mother about who got us lost and how to get us back on the right road. We only ever stopped for gas so if any of us had to use the toilet we had to hold it until the red indicator fell on "E."
Sometime after the first 30 hours of driving, while we lay in half-sleep daze, the seatbelts cutting across our laps uncomfortably, a different aroma would start to distinguish itself from the gas and diesel of the freeway. A look out the window through the grey fog of early morning revealed the shadows of orange groves and with them the heady, sweet scent of orange blossoms. At the next gas stop, the one that coincided with grits and eggs, our parents would buy a big bag of oranges and from that point on we would amuse ourselves eating the delicious fruit and trying to get the free plastic drinking spout to actually produce orange juice straight from the fruit. Orlando was soon to follow.
Most oranges in North America are grown in either Florida or California. Production in these states is so successful that oranges are available in supermarkets virtually year round, so it is easy to take the fruit for granted. It wasnt always this way. My parents still reminisce about getting an orange in the toe of their Xmas stockings the only one they might get the entire year!
There are three types of oranges, sweet, sour/bitter and loose skinned. Originating in China 4,000 years ago, the common ancestor was "most likely" the bitter Seville orange (also called Bigarade). This orange is very sour and pungent and unpalatable to eat out of hand. It is usually reserved for marmalade and liqueurs, where its flavour shines.
From China the orange moved to India, Japan, Africa and was brought to Spain by the Arabs and to France by the Crusaders. The sweet orange did not reach Europe until the 1530s, brought from India via Portuguese and Italian merchants. The Portuguese were also the first to introduce oranges to North America.
Despite its travels, the orange remained a rare fruit, reserved for royalty and the very wealthy. The first orangerie or gallery for sheltering oranges, was built by Charles VIII of France, and many European monarchs followed suit. Louis XIV built a magnificent C-shaped building at Versailles filled with a thousand trees in silver boxes. The middle classes were only able to start enjoying oranges during the 20th century and even then the fruit was an indulgence.
The distribution success in North America was largely attributed to the development of the railroad, allowing for the rapid transport of ripening fruit. Today four times as many oranges are grown in Florida than are grown in California. Florida oranges are usually used for their juice because they are not as visually appealing. California oranges have a beautiful bright hue, in large part due to the cooler night temperatures during the growing season. The two most popular sweet varieties that are grown are the juicy Valencia and the sweet, easy-to-peel navel.
According to pomologists (a fruit-growing scientist), oranges and other members of the genus Citrus (lemons, limes, mandarin, sweet and sour oranges, grapefruits, Persian and Mexican limes) readily interbreed, creating a myriad of hybrids that can be difficult to classify. Most hybrids are not available commercially. The blood orange is one example of hybrid orange that comes on the market for a short time at the beginning of the year. They have a thin skin, often tinged with a red blush and a dark ruby-red flesh. They are a sexy fruit with a combination of orange and raspberry flavour and they add striking colour and intensity to any dish they are used in.
Interestingly, oranges are not named for their colour. The word orange is actually a transliterate from sanskrit naranga , which is derived from naru , Tamil for "fragrant." The plants were grown for their fragrance and beauty long before they were grown for their fruit.
The orange tree has long been a symbol of fertility because the evergreen produces flowers, fruit and foliage simultaneously. It was believed that holding an orange in your hand could ward off the plague. By the 16th century, oranges and other citrus fruits were mainstays of naval galleys as they were known to prevent scurvy.
Oranges keep well for several days at room temperature and will keep for up to two weeks in the fridge. When selecting fruit, choose oranges that are shiny and heavy for their size, without any mould or sponginess. Colour is not always a good indication of ripeness as they are often sprayed with food colouring to enhance their appearance. A green tinge or a russeting of the skin does not indicate poor quality. If a recipe calls for using the skin or zest of the orange, thoroughly wash the fruit with soap and water first.
The following recipe is from the 39th edition of Saveur Magazine, December 1999. This is a moist, buttery, pound cake which will keep well for three days at room temperature or one week in the fridge. The texture is most moist when prepared at least eight hours prior to serving as the syrup will be evenly distributed but, hey, most of us cant wait that long so indulge anyway. Make sure the cake is done by inserting a wooden toothpick or skewer it should come out clean. If the cake is under-baked the texture will be gummy and tough instead of having a fine, tender crumb.
Orange Pound Cake
Be sure to glaze this cake while its still warm so that the syrup is easily absorbed.
For the Cake:
15 tablespoons softened unsalted butter
3 tablespoons milk
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups sifted cake flour
3/4 of a cup of sugar
3/4 of a teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
For the Glaze:
1/3 of a cup of sugar
1/3 of a cup of freshly squeezed orange juice
1. For the cake: Preheat oven to 350. Grease a 6-cup loaf pan with two tablespoons of the butter; set aside. Put milk, eggs, and vanilla in a bowl and beat until well combined; set aside.
2. Sift together flour, sugar, and baking powder into the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a whisk. Add zest, beating on medium speed, then add remaining 13 tablespoons of butter, one tablespoon at a time, waiting until each is completely incorporated before adding more.
3. Slowly add milk-egg mixture, beating constantly, until batter is just mixed together. Pour into prepared pan and bake until a toothpick inserted in the centre of the cake comes out clean, 55-65 minutes. (Lightly cover the cake with a piece of buttered foil during baking if it begins to get too brown.) Allow the cake to cool on a rack for 5 minutes, then unmould. Using a skewer, poke holes all over top of cake.
4. For the glaze: Combine sugar and orange juice in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Reduce glaze by half. Brush some of the warm glaze over top of cake, reapplying glaze until cake is saturated.