It’s the season, in Greece, for oranges, and oranges are everywhere you look, splattered on the pavements of city streets, heaped up for sale at the roadside, dangling from branches overhanging garden walls. Oranges at this time of year are plentiful and little more than pennies a kilo, a healthy, sweet dessert for any winter lunch.
A couple of years ago, I spent a winter week in the picturesque coastal town of Nafplio, in the Peloponnese. The drive down from Athens was beautiful, the road following the coastline as far as the Corinth canal, then passing the site of ancient Mycenae before reaching the orange groves which surround Nafplio – acres upon acres of fruit trees, all bending under the weight of their crops, and truck after truck on the road heading back towards Athens, ferrying the fruit to the city markets and processing plants. I stopped the car to take pictures, and the sweet scent of oranges was everywhere, carried from the orchards by the cold breeze.
In Sitia, Crete, the weekly market in winter is almost buried under oranges, with the stall-holders vying to outshout each other to bring customers to their stalls. And wherever you buy your oranges in Greece, there is never any question of taking a polite three or four, or even five or six. Bags must be filled to bursting with several kilos of fruit, which lengthen the arms and strain the back on the way home.
What to do with all that wonderful, flavourful fruit? When you’ve eaten your fill, you can juice it, of course. In Nafplio, even the Goody’s burger joint would press you a fresh glass right before your eyes, and on the way home, there was a bar selling fresh-pressed orange juice at the airport. When you’ve had enough juice, try baking – have a go at my traditional Greek recipe for orange and almond cake – or dig deep into the retro roots of French cooking and make a classic duck a l’orange.
But not all Greek oranges are dessert oranges. Much hardier than the sweet orange tree is the bitter orange or Νεραντζάκι (nerandzaki), which gives neroli oil, an essential ingredient in many perfumes including Hermes’s seductive French cologne. The bitter orange will flourish in cold and inhospitable conditions where the sweet orange would wither, including city streets and windswept hillsides.
When I was living on the island of Symi, I remember going every winter with my then-husband to pick bitter oranges from a single tree which grew at a remote chapel high above Pedi bay. The route passed the cemetery and crossed a ravine behind it where there would occasionally be broken coffins amongst the rubbish of dead flowers and discarded plant pots, hauled from ground when bodies were exhumed (if you’d like to know more about Orthodox rites of exhumation, I wrote about it in The Whispers of Nemesis). The walk was rugged and rough underfoot, but worth the effort for the exhilarating views across the Aegean from the chapel – reward enough in the years when someone else had got there first, and there were no oranges to be had.
Why trouble to pick oranges too bitter to eat raw? In Greece, you might make spoon sweets, traditional confections made to welcome guests. The juice can be used in cooking, and goes particularly well with pork (and duck, of course). Best of all, make marmalade. In the short winter weeks when bitter (Seville) oranges are in season, there’s no better way to spend a chilly afternoon, and nothing like the glow of satisfaction when you’re admiring your freshly filled jars of golden orange preserve. Sunshine for the table.
6 Seville oranges
1 unwaxed lemon
2kg preserving sugar (this is belt and braces. With the lemons and the preserving sugar you should get a good set)
Take your time! Making good marmalade is a job not to be rushed.
1. First, make sure your jars and lids (you’ll need about six, depending on their size) are sterilised. (Warning: Don’t skip this step thinking your jars look clean enough. They’re not.) The easiest way to sterilise jars is to put them through a dishwasher cycle and leave them shut away in there until you’re ready to fill them. If you don’t have the luxury of a dishwasher, give the jars a good wash, rinse in hot water and stand them on a baking tray, then pop them in the oven on its very lowest setting for at least fifteen minutes.
2. Sit yourself down with the oranges, lemon and a sharp knife and cut away the outer rind, leaving behind the white pith. Cut the rind into strips as long and thin as you’d like to have on your breakfast toast.
3. Squeeze the juice from the rindless oranges and lemon and pour it into a preserving pan or the biggest pan you’ve got. Add the sliced rind. Gather up the pips and squeezed-out remains of the fruit, tie them in a muslin bag and pop the bag into the pan.
4. Add the sugar and 2 litres of water and put the pan on a low heat. Bring slowly to the boil and simmer very gently for about an hour and half, until the rind is very soft and the liquid is reduced by about half.
5. Increase the heat under the pan and boil rapidly until the marmalade reaches setting point – about fifteen minutes. To check for setting point, spoon a little of the mixture onto a cold plate. If wrinkles form when you draw the spoon across the marmalade, you’re about there. If not, boil a further five minutes and test again. Be patient and be sure your marmalade is ready. If you’re not sure, keep boiling – how long it takes to reach setting point depends to a large extent on your fruit.
6. When you’re happy you’ve reached setting point, turn off the heat and let the marmalade relax for about fifteen minutes, then pour into your warm, sterile jars. Cover with a wax disk, and leave to go cold before you seal and label the jars.
Author of the Mysteries of the Greek Detective, books with a touch of mythology set in almost-contemporary Greece, and featuring lots of fabulous Greek food.
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