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Food and Drink

Tangy exotics at the local produce counter

Two welcome bits of exotica pop up around this time of year at your produce counter. Both are redolent with good health, and both have a reputation for putting the boot to lingering winter blahs. Our exotic guests? Blood oranges and Seville oranges.

Blood oranges, if you’ve never had the pleasure of encountering one, are phenomenal to behold. Even though a blush of red on their orange skins warns of what’s to come, people are equal parts shocked and delighted on cutting one open, whether they’re virginal or fully seasoned blood orange eaters.

My theory is it has everything to do with the fact that we’ve named the orange and the colour of same with a single word, so they remain inseparable in our English consciousness (the word "orange" actually comes from a Sanskrit word, "naranga"). Something like being upended when our usually unripe lime-green limes turn yellow when they ripen.

All similar assumptions fall away when you cut into a blood orange. If you’re lucky enough to get a good juicy one, drops of crimson red juice, like tiny ruby beads, spill out onto your cutting board or plate.

But that’s nothing compared to the thrill of the orange half flopping open, cut side up, revealing its glorious red segments organized in that beautiful full circle fan. They can even be red-purple, and I’ve had one that was almost black, the pigment was so deep. All set off by the ring of white pulp and skin of bright orange. Beautiful.

Now that I’ve got you all excited, here’s the catch – I’ve also opened blood oranges and found plain old orange colour, or orange tinged with just a blush of red. This is not to be completely discredited, but when you’re expecting blood and get orange juice, well, it’s just not the same.

Colour variations are due to several factors. Now there are three varieties of blood oranges making their way to North American markets, two from the Mediterranean, where they’ve been grown since the 18th century, one variety in Italy, another in Spain, and one from the San Diego area, home to a new hybrid.

The Tarocco blood orange from Italy may be sweeter, but its red colour is not as consistent. The Moro, from California, is usually darker in colour. But I’ve found colour variations all in the same batch, wherever it’s from.

Harold McGee, in his seminal On Food and Cooking , explains that the wonderful dark red colour is due to anthocyanin pigments, also found in the likes of cherries, red grapes, blackberries, eggplant, red currents, and the reddish colour in new leaves of certain plants.

Anthocyanin protects plants from UV light. In the blood orange, it develops only when night temperatures are low – in the Mediterranean, that means fall and winter. The pigment, which contains high antioxidant properties, tends to accumulate near the blossom end and continues to do so when the oranges are in cold storage.

As for taste, the blood orange can be fabulous, often sweeter than a regular orange, with a deep, almost pungent finish tinged with berry. But it can also be blah. A common complaint is that they’re sometimes pulpy and dry – all part of the challenge of shipping food thousands of miles, and, many would argue, one more reason to buy produce grown closer to home. The trick is to heft the fruit before you buy it. Heavy means juicy, and likely a better experience.

Given its evocative name and imagery, the blood orange has starred in romantic writing for centuries, as "blood orange moons" and in William Carlos William poems. But so has our other exotic import, the Seville orange. And here is a case where an orange by any other name is not at all the same orange.

In other corners of the world, the Seville orange is known as the sour orange or bitter orange. Either is appropriate, as one quick taste will tell you. But how much poetry can you forge from that? And so the more romantic "oranges from Seville" it is, at least in Britain and North America.

The plant, which originated in southern Vietnam, was imported into Spain and Portugal in the 12th century, where it quickly displaced quince as the main ingredient in marmalade. In fact the Greek word for quinces packed in honey – for they are far too astringent to be eaten without it – is "melimelon", giving us the word "marmalade."

If there was ever a list of foods perfectly suited to winter, marmalade, that is, good marmalade, would have to be on it. Never mind paying $10 or $12 for a jar of same at a specialty store. Make a good batch yourself, and you’ll be sure to come up with a true marmalade – one made without adding pectin.

For the joy of sugar preserves, as a true marmalade is, is that you rely on the natural reaction between the sugar, the fruit acids and the fruit’s own pectin. Try the recipe below my husband came up with. The result is so delicious you won’t be able to keep your hand out of the pot. Perfect on toast and ice cream or, if you’re ambitious, duck a l’orange .

Peter’s Marmalade

Wash and halve 1 pound of Seville oranges. Squeeze the juice into a medium-sized glass bowl. Gather the seeds and scrape the membranes out of the peels and put them all in a cheesecloth bag (a piece of clean pantyhose will do); tie it up. Finely shred about a third of the peels and mince the rest. Add them all into the juice, along with the bag and about 1.25 pints of cold water. Cover your bowl and stick it in the fridge overnight. The next day dump the whole lot into a stainless steel pot. Add another 1.25 pints of cold water. Bring it slowly to a boil and simmer gently, stirring often, until the peels are tender, about 20 minutes. Measure the volume of the mixture. Add 2 cups of sugar, preferably raw organic sugar (it adds a fuller flavour), for every 1 cup of mixture. Bring it back to a rolling boil and cook about 15 minutes, stirring constantly. Test the thickness by lobbing spoonfuls onto a cold plate. When it’s done to your liking, pour your marmalade into sterilized jars. Enjoy. Increase the recipe as you like.