If you go to Palermo and visit the Botanical Gardens in January, you will see groves of citrus trees bowed down with fruit – oranges, lemons, grapefruit, bergamots, kumquats. They’ll be littering the floor beneath the trees, everywhere will smell of citrus. It’s a wonderful, wonderful sensual inundation, that seems to be almost inconsequential and hum drum, judging by the amount of unloved, unpicked, ungathered fruit. The closest UK parallel I could think of is the orchards around the Herefordshire village where my mum lives; they audibly groan under the weight of freeloading mistletoe – I’m still bowled over every time I see its superabundance, but it remains utterly ignored by almost everyone else. It is wallpaper.
The Palermo harvest reaffirms that winter is truly the season of the citrus, and means that some of the best fruits of the year make a far too brief appearance in the kitchen. I know that there are year-round oranges, which sit unloved in so many fruit bowls, encased by invisible wax so that they never go off – lasting for weeks/months to admonish you over your lack of 5 a day. But I’m championing the small group of citruses that resolutely remain as fixed points in the year. They’re heralded just before Christmas but the arrival of proper satsumas and clementines (by proper, I mean, ripe, unabashedly orange, juicy and sweet). Although the first time I saw them rebranded as ‘Easy Peelers’, I could have kicked something! And then in January, in the year’s darkest days (in terms of both light and mood) along come the blood and Seville Oranges to lift the spirits.
How they have resisted being co-opted into the twelve months of the year cornucopias that are supermarkets today, I don’t know. Perhaps because there’s only so much marmalade you can consume in a life time, maybe that particular market is saturated; by mid February everyone’s yelling ‘enough with the marmalade’ I do fear that one day, some bright spark will twig that there’s a bigger, brighter market to tap into, and another chunk of nature will be felled to ensure we get what we want, when we want it. I hope not, seasonal food is exciting, and appreciated all the more because it is so time limited.
And so to oranges.
Seville Oranges are a national institution, even if we have to import them. In the depths of winter, they seem almost magical. Marmalade making offsets all the motivational guff written about January being the most depressing month. I use a recipe ripped from an old Sunday supplement, It lives in the same cookbook, along with a recipe for orange flower water biscuits. It is a worn and sticky piece of paper now, but an old friend. My marmalade is always very dark and very bitter. I don’t know if it’s a reflection of my soul, but I never end the day with jars of stained glass window marmalade. I always make too much, and have recently learnt a handy tip that an old friend’s mum uses. Eileen, a stalwart of the WI and famous for her preserves, avoids being crushed under a mountain of her own jams by taking a jar of her marmalade whenever she’s invited out, ensuring a liberal distribution across rural Northamptonshire as a result. I shan’t give a recipe here, as a great many have already been written, and written by better cooks than me. I use Nigel Slater’s and it never fails.
The recipe that I will give is a simple one to put under the stairs for next Christmas.
Seville Orange Gin
Take the peel of half a dozen seville oranges.
Place it in a sealable jar with 75cl of gin
Add 50g sugar (vary this according to your tastes)
Leave it for a year, or longer if you can.
This is a fantastic home made liquer. It is absolutely perfect for winter and firesides, it reeks of getting in from a blustery, muddy dog walk and shutting the door on the world. Try to forget you made it, as it gets better and better with age.
And then the blood oranges.
I love blood oranges. I really, really love blood oranges. I have a visceral memory of the first time child me encountered one – the ghoulish, Hammer horror wonderment that such a thing existed. Their novelty, and transience made them my favourite fruit. I doubt I saw more than half a dozen in all those years – and I still don’t know what they were doing in North Warwickshire – the closest we got to exotic was Larry Grayson driving around town in his pink Rolls Royce. And then they vanished, for years it seems. I don’t know where they went, but I have no blood orange memories until very recently, just a lingering feeling of loss. Perhaps because of this, I tend to bulk buy them when theydo appear – and then have to convert them into favourite recipes.
The ‘blood’ is a chemical initiated by cold nights – (yes, even in Sicily, they get cold nights), the same process turns lemons yellow and oranges orange. And they have a different flavour to normal oranges – fruitier, sweeter – it’s been described as being raspberry-like.
And they have their own rituals in my house – a sorbet and a curd.
The sorbet is easy – and allows me to keep the memory of blood oranges alive into the summer.
The curd is equally simple, but only keeps for a few weeks – so it is almost as ephemeral as the oranges themselves. However, it makes one of the best pudding marriages I’ve ever stumbled across – a generous spoonful with rice pudding creates a thing of utter joy.
Blood Orange Sorbet
8 Blood oranges (the bloodier, the better)
350 ml water
220 g caster sugar.
2 egg whites
Make a syrup by dissolving the sugar in the water on the hob.
Juice the oranges and then sieve this into the syrup.
Leave to cool.
Once it’s cool, put it into the freezer (or an ice cream maker if you have one)
If it’s in the freezer, check it every hour or so, and break up any ice that’s forming – keep doing this until it has the consistency of a slush puppy.
Then whisk the egg whites until the stiff, and then mix these through the nearly frozen sorbet.
(if you’re using a machine, watch for the same consistency and then add the egg whites).
Refreeze the whole mixture, giving it a final stir before it freezes solid.
Blood Orange Curd
3 blood oranges
4 egg yolks
150g caster sugar
40g unsalted butter.
Put the yolks and sugar in a pan and whisk together.
Add the sieved juice of the oranges and then, on a gentle heat, cook for about 10 minutes, stirring all the time. It’ll become thicker as the egg cooks.
Remove from the heat, and add in the butter 10g at a time, stirring it through until it is all melted.
Transfer to a jar and keep in the fridge until your ready to use it.
You can use this technique with any citrus – but it should be tart, as well as sweet – so works best with oranges, lemons, or bergamots (if you can find them)