Seville Oranges – for more than just marmalade

Seville Oranges are in the shops for the next couple of weeks and I’m making an exception to my usual principle of discussing only British produce because apparently our consumption of marmalade has fallen by 5.6% over the last two years – a pattern of decline that looks set to continue given that the majority of marmalade eaters are over the age of 65.

Does this really matter?  Not much in the great scheme of things I have to admit, but I will be a little sad if the time comes when Seville Oranges no longer make their brief appearance in late January.  So, I imagine, will the Spanish, since they are grown almost entirely for the British marmalade market.  During the Second World War making marmalade was considered so essential to British morale that special efforts were made to ensure the supply of Seville Oranges, so what has changed?

One heartening suggestion is that, dissatisfied with commercial offerings, we have returned to making marmalade at home, although I have not been able to find statistics to support this theory. Were it simply that we have realised that a breakfast of toast and marmalade has little nutritional benefit and now started our day in a more healthy way there would be some comfort in marmalade’s demise.  However it seems that in the same period increased sales of chocolate spread and peanut butter more than covered the drop in marmalade sales so health doesn’t appear to be the motivation.  Sales of jams also continued to increase, with only honey joining marmalade in seeing declining sales.  Honey is of course worthy of further discourse in its own right, but for today let’s consider what we will lose if indeed we are losing our appetite for Seville Oranges.

In common with the rest of the citrus family, bitter oranges are native to China.  Following the Citron, Citrus aurantia (bitter oranges) were the next member of the citrus family to be cultivated in the west.  They were apparently grown in Sicily in the early 11th century and around Seville towards the end of the 12th century, no doubt introduced by the Arabs. The first sweet oranges, Citrus sinensis , reached Lisbon in the 1630’s and thirty years later theatre goers in London were offered them as refreshment, and although they quickly gained popularity over the bitter orange, sweet oranges were expensive and bitter oranges continued to be the norm in cooking.   Up until the early nineteenth century, unless sweet oranges are specified (sometimes referred to as Portugal oranges) you should assume that bitter oranges are required.  The casual substitution of sweet oranges has led to the ruin of such previously fine recipes such as Canard à la orange .  

Before Seville orange marmalade was made in Scotland, preserves of bitter orange peel were already known in Arabic cooking, whilst “marmalade” was being made in Britain from quinces.  The other main use of bitter oranges derives not from the fruit but from the flowers.  The distillation of the flowers produces the essential oil Neroli, which is drawn off for use in perfumery, whilst the aqueous remains is known as Orange Flower Water and is used in cooking, particularly in the Middle East. In Southern France bitter oranges are called Bigarard and the area around Grasse is the main western producer of orange flower water.

But what of the implications of bitter oranges falling out of favour in our own cuisine?  Could it be, I wonder, a sign that we are losing our appreciation of bitter tastes as a whole?

At marmalade making time each year there is always some debate as to whether it can be made from other citrus fruit.  Technically, and even historically, the answer is yes, but what people are really asking here is whether the distinctly bitter taste is an essential part of the marmalade that has become culturally associated with Britain.  A grapefruit marmalade, for example, will taste zesty and refreshing, but is this really marmalade or just a peel jam?

A similar argument rears its head when discussing cider.  The eastern side of the country, and increasingly commercial cider makers from wherever they hail, make cider from dessert rather than cider apples, which, like Seville Oranges, contain the distinctive bitter element that for many is the essence of the true taste of cider.  Feelings also run high over the naming of pear equivalents – those made from genuine Perry Pears are the only ones that ought to be called Perry (although there is no law enforcing this) and to mistakenly call it Pear Cider (which would be made from dessert pears) is deeply insulting.

Bitterness adds a depth of flavour that is missing from fruit which is predominantly sweet or sour.  By including it you will literally be activating more of the taste buds so that the whole taste experience is more complex, less one dimensional.  Human beings are born with the basic ability to appreciate sweetness because it tells us when things are fully ripe but the addition of bitterness can prevent sweet dishes from becoming cloying. Sourness is the direct opposite of this and is often likened to the white in an artist’s palette in that a little of it will lighten and lift a dish and actually enhance our perception of the sweetness that exists.  Try squeezing a little lemon juice over strawberries rather than adding sugar and see which tastes sweeter.

If sour is the white in an artist’s palette then bitter equates to black, allowing the cook to create shade and depth in a dish.  Strangely people often confuse these two, perhaps because either, in excess, will cause one to wince and screw up the face in dislike.  The two can also exist together, making distinction more difficult: trying to eat a raw sloe is one example.

Unlike sweetness, an appreciation of bitter usually develops with time and this is probably a natural defence mechanism since it enabled hunter-gatherers to distinguish poisonous plants by their bitter flavour.  As their knowledge grew so did their realisation that not all bitter plants are poisonous, but still it appears that these receptors develop with age.  So food containing a degree of bitterness has sophisticated, adult overtones. 

Yet tea is the example usually used to taste bitterness caused by tannins without the added complication of sourness, and there can be no import more associated with British taste than tea!

Could it be that our basic taste receptors have adapted in response to industrial food production?   The main purpose of additives is to enhance the attractiveness of food to us, but it does seem that the majority of these are based on sugar or salt.  Consider our taste in chocolate for example.  Pure cacao is unpalatably bitter so a degree of sugar is needed to make chocolate for eating, but although we are beginning to appreciate chocolate with higher cocoa solids, the majority of that sold in the UK is still milk and quite sweet.  Palates do of course differ and gauging the degree of bitterness that others will enjoy is difficult – you have only to think about the differing amounts of sugar that individuals choose to add to tea or coffee.  A quick test to assess your own, or others, tolerance to bitterness is simply to add, one drop at a time, some Angostura Bitters to a glass of Perrier water.  Other brands will suffice, but I suggest Perrier in this instance because it is quite salty and the combination, plus the carbonation, should make an enjoyably refreshing drink but exactly how much Angostura to add will be quite a personal taste.

So what I would miss most about the absence of Seville Oranges is not their sourness – for which there are plenty of substitutes, but the bitterness that comes with it.  I do not eat much marmalade and thankfully there still seems to be a plentiful supply of good homemade offerings for what I do need, but there are plenty of other recipes for which I still buy a single kilo of organic Seville oranges when the season arrives.  It is sometimes suggested that a mixture of orange and lemon juice be substituted when Seville oranges are not available, but whilst this can give an approximation of acidity it really doesn’t provide the complexity and sophistication that comes from the bitterness of Sevilles.  I hope that some of this month’s recipes will convince you both to support the bitter orange, for the sake of biodiversity, but also to look for the pleasing touch of bitterness in other foods.

7 thoughts on “Seville Oranges – for more than just marmalade

  1. Since writing this article I have read that sales of Seville oranges are up 30% this year and that online searches for marmalade recipes are up by 80%. So it would seem that it is only commercial marmalade that is suffering. I would be interested to hear other views on these trends.

    1. I have been making my own marmalade for about 10 years because the shop bought jars are just too sweet and don’t have much taste. Also, the thick cut stuff doesn’t have enough peel in it.
      My grandmothers made their own marmalade so I thought I’d give it a go.
      I buy the oranges from a local market. I have often worried that a day will come when the oranges are no longer available. This article gives me some hope. I am also going to try making something other than marmalade. I may be back to the market for more oranges
      this weekend.

    2. I’m still making my own Marmalade and add to Lemons or Ginger or Whiskey. Actually now I have written that I think I’m going to do all four in one mix, tomorrow:)

  2. writing in Jan 2012 – I would have contributed to those figures as I made Seville marmelade for the first time in 2011. I didn’t get it to set so it makes a sloppy breakfast and I really should have sliced the peel more finely. It’s too bitter for everyone else in the house and I have a few jars left. If I had time, I would make it again, and really enjoy a good long afternoon in the kitchen…hmmm lovely

  3. Terrific jam made from a batch a friend gave me. Ordered another one and wait for jam to set….. Have 1/2 batch left and hope to find another recipe, MFisher

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