Citrus Season

Flourishing in the Mediterranean sun, a cast of citrus fruits are woven into the culinary culture. 

Think of a lemon. Close your eyes and imagine you’re sucking on a juicy lemon slice. Can you feel it, that slight pressure at the root of your tongue? Your mouth waters profusely as the sour acids take over.

Back in the day, before Tel Aviv rose from the dunes North of Jaffa, the port city was surrounded by orange groves, or Pardesim as they are called in Hebrew. The origins of the word traces back to pairi-daēza, the old Persian name for the walled gardens of the first Persian empire. Passing through the Greek parádeisos (meaning park or garden) and the Latin Paradisus, paradise entered modern day English to describe a place of exceptional happiness & delight while in Hebrew the word has come to refer to citrus groves of all kinds.

The etymology of the orange in the Middle East is just as telling of its ancient voyage. In Arabic, Turkish and Greek, oranges are Burtuqaliu, named after the Portuguese merchants who brought them over from China whereas in Danish, Finnish, Uzbek and Latvian (to name a few), oranges are appelsin, meaning ‘fruit from China’.

A versatile family are the citruses; the peel can be zested to impart the flavor and aroma of its essential oils, cold pressed into an oil, boiled in syrup to a marmalade or crystallized in sugar for a candied peel. The segments can be eaten with or without their outer skin and the pulp can be juiced for a refreshing beverage or as seasoning to a dish, adding that sharp acidity. The seeds can also be pressed into oil used to moisturize the skin while orange flower water is used to perfume many Levantine desserts.

The citron was the first member of the genus to make the journey west over a millennium ago. A native to the foothills of the eastern Himalaya, it had arrived in the Persian Gulf and spread to the Mediterranean basin, where it was rendered a rare and coveted possession, a status symbol and even a carrier of religious significance.

The rest of citrus family eventually caught up, flourishing in the Levantine sun and soils and where they would become the cornerstone in most, if not all, Mediterranean cuisines and food cultures.

Practically no Mediterranean dish is complete without a drizzle of good olive oil and the squeeze of a fresh lemon. Take the Avgolemono used in soups & sauces found in Greek, Turkish, Balkan, Spanioli and Italian cuisines or the dried black limes that add a sour flavor stews and soups in so many Persian dishes.

Each member of this distinguished family is renowned for its own unique flavor and aroma profile, size, color and texture and can be eaten or drunk, enjoyed raw or cooked, pickled or preserved. Sicily is a citrus paradise, cultivating some of the finest oranges and lemons in the world, the Amalfi coast is also renowned for its lemons introduced to the region by the Romans (as is the Limoncello liquor made from its zest) while bitter oranges are the emblem of the city of Seville, also known as Seville oranges.

The all famous Jaffa orange, aka the Shamouti, is deep orange in color, large oval in shape, thick skinned in texture and distinctive in flavor (the perfect balance of sweet and sour). It was developed in Jaffa by local Arab farmers in the mid 19th century and consequently cultivated and exported from Jaffa’s port to Europe. What began in a chimera, a naturally occurring mutation, of a random Palestinian orange tree of the Baladi variety, ultimately spurred into the ‘Jaffa oranges industry’, granting Tel Aviv- Yafo its nickname, The Big Orange.

Jaffa cakes were also a homage to the local citrus industry, created by biscuit makers McVitie & Price in 1927. The three-layered cookies consisted of a sponge base, orange jam and a chocolate coating and were named after the then-world-famous Jaffa oranges.

Few of the orange orchards survived the times in Tel Aviv & Jaffa, as sweet oranges were gradually replaced with housing, commercial and office spaces in an ever growing city. Shamouti heirloom oranges have now become a rarity but there are still gems to be found in the urban jungle with oranges, lemons, grapefruit, clementines, pomelo and cumquat trees scattered throughout, some even free for all to forage, the most famous being Laskov street, a bitter orange grove in disguise.

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