14 January 2011

Orange time!

There is no shortage of colour in an Alcalá winter.  And right now, the colour is largely orange.  The naranjos (orange trees) in the Playa are laden with fruit, squashed oranges lie rotting on the the pavement, the greengrocers counters are piled high with five or six different varieties, and people are selling the produce from their huertas on street corners and door-to-door.

The fruit we love today is an ancient hybrid originating in Southeast Asia.  Both the bitter orange, Citrus aurantium, and the sweet one, Citrus sinensis, were being cultivated  in China by 2500 BC.  The Romans first brought them to Europe, but their cultivation died out here after the fall of the Roman Empire.  However they were planted across North Africa,  the Moors introduced them to Spain, and by the 12th century they covered an area from Sevilla to Granada.  The Spanish in turn took them to Florida, and the Portuguese created vast plantations in Brazil, which is now the world's leading producer of orange juice.

All six hundred kinds of orange found today were bred from those original two varieties.  The sweet ones include blood, navel and Valencia oranges, used for juice and for the table.  The bitter ones, also known as Seville or bergamot oranges, are used for marmalade, pickles, fragrant oils and some herbal medicines.  The mandarin cultivar (Citrus reticulata) has many loose-skinned varieties such as satsuma, clementines and tangerines.  They are all part of the citrus genus, along with lemons, limes and grapefruit.

Unfortunately the oranges littering the streets of most Andalucian towns right now are the sour variety, and you can only make so much marmalade.  Incidentally the Spanish don't make or eat marmalade - most Seville oranges are exported to Britain for this purpose.  One story goes that a thrifty Scot named James Keiller  started the whole thing in 1700, not wanting to waste the oranges used as ballast in the empty holds of cargo ships returning from Spain after delivering Scottish wool.  Another variant is that the Scotch whisky industry imported Spanish oak barrels, which were filled with oranges to stop them rolling round in the hold.

In a couple of months the orange blossom will start to appear, even while the old fruit are still on the tree.  The wonderful scent from these waxy white blooms fills the streets on a warm evening, and is a sure sign that spring has arrived.  The Spanish word for orange, naranja, comes from the Sanskrit narangah, meaning fragrant.

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