Citrus Fit for a Princess

Bitter oranges (Citrus aurantium)

Bitter oranges (Citrus aurantium)

"Throughout the Mediterranean stands an assembly of orchards, each containing hundreds of trees with bright, shiny, green leaves, beautiful white blossoms and bright, lumpy bitter oranges. The fragrance of the ripened fruit sweeps through the cities that neighbor it, filling the noses of locals with the familiar scent of spring harvest."

There are people who have built their entire lives dedicated to the production of the bitter orange, one of the most unique fruits in the world. Although it is rarely eaten uncooked, the bitter orange, and other parts of its tree, are propagated for a variety of products. These include essential oils, marmalade, liqueurs, medicine and perfumes.

Unlike sweet oranges, the kind we buy at the grocery store, the bitter orange is much stronger, giving it a more sour or "bitter" taste. This means that the bitter orange has a more pungent smell as well, making it helpful in cooking or for increasing aromatics.

The bitter orange (citrus aurantium) goes under several aliases, including: sour orange, seville orange, daidai and bergamot. Its history spans over thousands of years, reaching all corners of the world.

The bitter orange tree flourishes in subtropical to near-tropical conditions and was said to have originated in the region of north-eastern India, Burma and China. From there, it moved both eastward into Japan and westward into the Middle East.

PHOTO BY DAVID KARP, LA TIMES JB Ranch bitter orange orchard in Seville, CA.

PHOTO BY DAVID KARP, LA TIMES

JB Ranch bitter orange orchard in Seville, CA.

In the 12th century, the bitter orange tree was brought into the Mediterranean by the Moors where it still predominantly grows today. It became particularly popular in Seville, Spain, hence its vernacular name, "Seville Orange."

Because bitter oranges are harvested during late fall through late winter (depending on the climate), the aroma embodies the beginning of spring for the communities that produce them.

"The aroma embodies the beginning of spring for the communities that produce them."

Bitter oranges have many different uses globally. In Calabria, Italy, the bitter orange or "bergamot" is used to produce bergamot oil, which is a popular component in perfume. Bergamot oil is also used to flavor Earl Grey tea, a classy form of black tea in the United Kingdom. 

PHOTO COURTESY OF FRAGRANTICA A bitter orange flower, which the Japanese dry and mix with their tea.

PHOTO COURTESY OF FRAGRANTICA

A bitter orange flower, which the Japanese dry and mix with their tea.

In Asian countries, bitter orange is called "daidai," which translates to "many generations." This comes from the longevity of the fruit, which remain ripe for years despite not being picked. The Japanese dry the aromatic flowers of the bitter orange to mix with their tea.

In England, bitter oranges were imported from Seville to make marmalade, a national food. This type of marmalade is also popular in other parts of the world, such as the Caribbean.

In the United States, some wild bitter orange trees can be found in wooded areas of Florida. The fruit were brought from Spain in the 16th century when the conquistadors began colonizing the Americas. Americans concentrate the bitter orange and place them in dietary pills due to their medical property of suppressing the appetite. 

In Puerto Rico, the inner rhine of the fruit is used to make candy. In Cuba, the sturdy, white wood from the bitter orange trees are used to make baseball bats. 

However, what makes the bitter orange particularly unique is its aromatic quality. In India, for instance, bitter oranges are called "narayam," which translates to "perfume within." 

"What makes the bitter orange particularly unique is its aromatic quality. In India, for instance, bitter oranges are called 'narayam,' which translates to 'perfume within.'"

There are three types of concentrated aromas or "essences" that are collected from the bitter orange tree. Bigarade comes from a cold press of the bitter orange peel, which holds a bitter and sour taste. Petitgrain comes from the distillation of the bitter orange leaves and buds, giving off a greenish, woody smell. And, **most importantly there is neroli, which is an essence derived from the blossom of the bitter orange. Its scent is sweet, honeyed and somewhat metallic with green and spicy facets. **

Princess Anne Marie Orsini of Nerola, Italy.

Princess Anne Marie Orsini of Nerola, Italy.

It is unknown where exactly neroli first came from, but a myth suggests that in Italy, Anne Marie Orsini, princess of Nerola, first introduced orange blossom to perfume her stationary, bathes, and (most famously) her gloves. 

"Myth suggests that in Italy, Anne Marie Orsini, princess of Nerola, first introduced orange blossom to perfume her stationary, bathes, and (most famously) her gloves."

In 1709, an Italian perfumer named J.M Farina extended the scent's popularity with his original blend of neroli, bermagot, lavender, lemon, petitgrain and rosemary oils, calling it "Eau de Cologne," translated, "water of Cologne."

Since the invention of Farina's revolutionary cologne, the perfumery industry has revered neroli oil as a classic element in fragrance design. Tunisia, regarded as one of the finest producers of neroli oil in the world, begins their process in April when the bitter orange flowers blossom. The workers start picking early in the morning when the flowers open, but only on bright, sunny days in order to preserve the delicate aroma. An overcast day can quite literally drown out the precious scent.

PHOTO COURTESTY OF BEAUTY ON TRIAL A Tunisian man picks bitter orange blossoms, later to be distilled into neroli oil

PHOTO COURTESTY OF BEAUTY ON TRIAL

A Tunisian man picks bitter orange blossoms, later to be distilled into neroli oil

The flowers are then collected and winnowed by hand for leaves, twigs and other impurities. It is important this step is done correctly, since Tunisia produces the highest quality neroli oil in the world. The flowers are then distilled in low-pressure, cool water to produce the yellowish essential oil, which holds an expensive price tag coveted by aroma fanatics around the globe.

 

"Tunisia produces the highest quality neroli oil in the world."

In the cocktail industry, drinks are adorned with the most intricate attention to detail, manipulating flavor to its full potential. Every small edge matters in order to contend in the competitive market. Because of the pungency the bitter orange offers, many companies have already taken advantage of the aroma. This is seen in popular liqueurs such as Triple sec, Grand Marnier and Curaçao as well as bitters companies such as Angostura, Urban Moonshine and Hella Bitters. 

With just one spray of Alice & the Magician Cocktail Aromatics to the mix, an ordinary manhattan can be transformed into a spring morning in Seville. 

 

 

 

 

 

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