I have family connections with the Spanish citrus business through the Casanova family. Years ago, I also worked for a time with South African citrus growers’ cooperative when they sold their fruit through the original Covent Garden Market in central London.
Citrus are a dream of a fruit – unlike just about everything else many months can go by between picking, storing, shipping, wholesaling and eventually ending up in your fruit bowl. If they were date stamped you’d be shocked. It’s probably the oldest fruit or vegetable you ever get to eat – the difference between fresh and regular is a gap too wide to leap across – think Grand Canyon.
Tree fruits – apples and pears - are stored in gas controlled sealed houses – so when you patriotically opt for a British apple or pear anytime between December and the late Spring, it will have been stored. Best always to buy fruit that’s a) good tasting and b) coming from where it’s in season, be that northern or southern hemisphere. In my purist view, any storage impairs the full flavours of food – assuming there was flavour there to begin with.
Seville oranges for making marmalade are similarly fresh, as should be blood oranges from Spain, Italy and North Africa. Both are in season now. Blood oranges can be a bit hit and miss on sweetness and depth of flavour – best is to buy one and taste it before paying for a dozen or more for juice or eating.
If I’ve learned anything about citrus fruits over the years it’s two essential tips for buying the best, be that from a street market or supermarket. First, always compare weight – the heavier the fruit, the juicier the contents. Fruit dries with age so it’s also a marker of freshness.
Second, always choose fruits which have scaring or blemishes in the skin. Supermarkets don’t like these, so most end up in street markets and greengrocers’ shops. The scaring comes from the young fruit being whip lashed when young by surrounding twigs. It also guarantees the fruit grew on the outside of the tree and so had more sunshine hours than the fruit growing nearer the trunk and protected by the heavy leaf cover.
By choosing the heaviest fruit with the pockmarked skin your trouble will be rewarded with better flavour just about every time. This works as much for oranges as it does for, grapefruits, lemons and limes. Christmas citrus, being smaller, tend to stay blemish free.
In Spain, the Casanova estate is situated near Puzol, around 25 kms to the north of Valencia and romantically called Campo Hannibal , branded with a stylised elephant’s head to symbolise Hannibal’s famous campaign up the Spanish coast and across the Pyrennees. Legend has it he camped on that very spot. Some citrus still is individually wrapped in colourful tissue paper. This is practical as one decaying fruit can ruin the entire box in transport – the papers are also avidly collected as many designs date back 100 years or more.
At Campo Hannibal, we’d either pick our own once the main harvesting was over – the trees can be picked by hand over 2-3 or more times to ensure the fruit is sufficiently ripe. We’d also be given wooden trays of mixed citrus, mostly from the old varieties used to help with pollination. Small clementines would be no bigger than a plum and carrying a few dozen pips – the market dislikes this, hence the newer varieties that have anything between a few to no pips at all. The sacrifice in flavour for a near seedless fruit makes the eater the loser.
It’s been two decades or more since Campo Hannibal sold its fruit in the UK, prefering instead to trade with Germany where there’s still a culture of specialist grocers and food halls for such premium fruit.
Fresher fruit always offers up more zest, so as you peel the fruit, the oils are released and it’s Christmastime in a few seconds. A twist of lemon – done over the glass as you drop it into your cocktail both smells and tastes special.
Unwaxed citrus is always preferable to waxed – specially when you are using the peel in cooking or drinks. Nothing you can do will remove the shiny wax that’s been sprayed on the fruit to extend and already long life. Back in the 70s there was a move to ridding of the wax, but commerce won the day and it stayed – opening a premium market for unwaxed fruit.
Oranges, lemons, clementines, mandarins, grapefruit and the rest are not high shine on the tree. Beware, if you are lucky enough to pick your own for the first time too – citrus trees have very unforgiving thorns as you work your way along the branches to pick the fruit. Perfectly ripe fruit will come away in your hand with only the very slightest of effort.
We are now in the time for those most special of lemons from Sorrento and Sicily (the only fruit to use for genuine Limoncello), bitter Seville oranges for marmalade and, a particular favourite of mine, blood oranges. Glasses of fresh squeezed blood orange juice are often served as the close to a traditional family meal in Valencia – their other speciality, the paella. Whenever you juice citrus, always roll each fruit with the palm of your hand to release the maximum amount of juice
The Moors had terraced by hand many of the hills along the Spanish coast – they are still there today, often with olive trees as old as the Moor’s occupation. More recently the EU funded modern terracing – wider than the originals – so citrus trees could be planted over a wider area of the fertile coastal strip from Valencia down to Murcia.
I only hope that Spain has an equivalent to Brogdale (Kent) where seeds from all the old varieties are kept, ready to plant again should fashion turn away from easy peeling, pip-free, less citrus rich fruit. They do have a water court that has sat and decreed on any disputes about water used for agriculture for centuries - their word is final and their presence in Valencia is revered and respected. Fall foul of the court and you can be denied any water whatsoever for an entire growing season.
Without fresh water, citrus can’t ever be juicy. Not a drop is wasted – Campo Hannibal had a magnificent blue and white tiled swimming pool on the roof of the hacienda. The water filled the pool during the day and then, gravity fed, was re-directed through a series of complex irrigation channels through the night. That was recycling 1920s style – elegance meeting function.