Tuesday, 2 July 2013

To Preserve Green Oranges

The young green fruits of Citrus X aurantium
January and early February are the traditional marmalade-making months in Britain. This is because Seville oranges are available in the shops during this very brief period. The Seville, or the bitter orange (Citrus x aurantium) appears to be a hybrid between the pomelo (Citrus maxima (Burm.) Merr.)  and the wild mandarin (Citrus reticulata Blanco). Although it is known in England as the Seville orange, the bitter orange is grown all over the Mediterranean and throughout Asia. In the medieval and early modern period, this bitter fruit was probably the first orange to be known in the West. It was introduced from Asia into Southern Spain and the wider Mediterranean by the Arabs. In England it is now chiefly used to make marmalade, but the juice and rind were once formerly used much more extensively in English cookery. The sweet orange did not appear in Europe until the early seventeenth century when it was brought to Lisbon from China by Portuguese plant collectors. In seventeenth century English cookery books these new sweet fleshed oranges were therefore known as either 'Portugals' or China oranges. In Greece, the name 'Portugals' - πορτοκαλία - is still used.

The bitter orange - from John Parkinson,In Sole Paradisus Terrestris (London: 1629)
Now, what interests me is this. I have said that the Seville orange season nowadays occupies a brief window in January and February. So how can the eighteenth century invoiced receipt below, which I came across in the archives of Arley Hall in Cheshire, be explained? It is a receipt for the sale of lemons, Cheanay oranges (sic), Sivill oranges (sic) and isinglass to Sir Peter Warburton, the owner of Arley Hall, by the Manchester grocer Mrs Elizabeth Raffald. The receipt is dated 29th May 1771. This would indicate that Seville oranges had a longer season back in the eighteenth century than they apparently do now. 29th May is well on from January and February. It could be that Mrs Raffald had the skill to keep her stock fresh for over three months, or Seville oranges were still being imported from Spain to Manchester in early summer, probably via Liverpool.

An invoiced receipt for citrus fruit in the hand of Mrs Elizabeth Raffald, who ran various grocery and confectionery shops in Manchester in the second half of the eighteenth century. Raffald was the author of the most original cookery book of the eighteenth century, The Experienced English Housekeeper (Manchester: 1769). She had worked as Sir Peter Warburton's housekeeper at Arley until her marriage in 1763. Photograph © Arley Hall Archives.
I was in Southern Spain recently in early June and noted that there were a few trees in the Seville area that were still bearing small numbers of bitter oranges. In some upland towns like Ronda, where the season is somewhat later, there were trees which were still heavily laden. So it is therefore highly possible that Seville oranges were being imported into England in the eighteenth century very late in the season, as Mrs Raffald's receipt suggests.

Seville oranges in Ronda on 6th June 2013
As well as the mature oranges, the trees I examined also bore small young green embryonic fruit. In Asia, mature bitter oranges (such as Japanese dai dai) stay on the tree for up to four years and actually go green again in the hot weather. While I was in Andalusia I collected a lot of small green baby Seville oranges and lemons on a friend's farm as I wanted to try out the recipe below for a sweetmeat from The Lady's Companion (London: 1751). I first came across the practice of preserving immature green bitter oranges in the 1970s when I lived on Crete. A friend of mine in Athens sends me some of her own homemade ones every year. They are superb. However the recipe below is English. In eighteenth century England, many wealthy estates had orangeries and it is likely that in poor years they had a large number of immature fruit to deal with. I suspect that this was the Georgian equivalent of that common modern recipe for making use of green tomatoes at the end of a cold, sunless English summer - the ubiquitous green tomato chutney. However baby green oranges and immature lemons preserved in syrup are much more interesting. Other immature green fruits such as hard unripe apricots, almonds and walnuts were also once preserved in this way. The nuts were collected before the hard shell formed and were processed in a similar way to the green oranges.

This recipe from The Lady's Companion (London: 1751). was reprinted in Hannah Glasse, The Complete Confectioner (London: 1770). Glasse also used this book as the source for many recipes in her earlier work The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy (London: 1747).
Small, fragrant baby lemons.
Small highly fragrant, but intensely bitter baby Seville oranges
The baby oranges and lemons are soaked in a strong brine for fifteen days to remove the bitterness. They are then washed in fresh water every day for five days to get rid of the salt. They are then preserved in sugar syrup.
I have completed the process of brining the oranges and have also washed them for five days in fresh water, changing it every day. Today, I made a stock syrup with a litre of water and a kilo of white sugar and have started the process of preserving the fruit in the syrup. I will post a photograph of the finished article in a future article about the wider issue of preserved and candied citrus peels.


  1. Yum! But rather you than me, it sounds like a job for a professional like yourself who has time and patience to do it. I will await the pictures of the finished product with great interest.

  2. As the granddaughter of an orange grower, and someone who has a sweet orange tree in her own garden, I can confirm that sweet oranges will stay sound and ripe if left on the tree, for many months. I live in a Mediterranean climate and it's not unusual at all to have last year's crop of oranges and this year's crop of blossoms, or this year's crop of green oranges, on the tree at the same time. The older ripe oranges get a thicker skin as the weather heats up, and can last through to summer if allowed to remain on the tree.

  3. Somehow, Latin American cooks use bitter oranges year round. I'll have to ask around to see how this is possible. I had never considered before how they had access to the fruit outside its normal season. Maybe they just leave it on the tree, as suggested above.

  4. Ivan - I'm very interested in the preserved green lemons as there are a some French recipes which use "green lemons", but it hasn't been clear to be what this means. La Chapelle in "Le Cuisiner Moderne" has a recipe for seringue fritters (Entremis des Bignets Seringuez) that uses " œuf de bon beurre, de l'écorces de citron verds râpé, de l'écorces de citron confit, de la fleurs-d'orange pralinée", this goes into "The Whole Duty of a Woman" as "a Bit of Butter, the Bigness of an Egg, with some green Lemon-Peel rasp'd, preserved Lemon Peel, and crisped Orange-flowers".

    These read like the green lemon is used fresh, but maybe not so.

    Regarding the source of the oranges:

    It might depend on the culinary use? I've picked bitter oranges in July in Seville, their condition wasn't perfect (pulp quite dry and a bit fermented), but the rinds were sound enough. If they were ever exported late in the season, I wonder if they were cheaper and of good enough quality for some preserving methods.

    It could be that they are sour oranges but not the Seville type? There are a number of early 18th century Scottish manuscripts that have the same recipe for preserving oranges whole. One from 1710 starts off by saying:

    "Take Bar-Mauda orranges if you can get ym, but not your high-colloured orranges, and pair ym thin as possible you can get ym, and rub ym well wt Sault..."

    For comparison Wellcome MS.1548/10 (circ. 1690) has a recipe for the same that is slightly different:

    "Take the high colloured thick reded oranges pare them thin as possible you can then rub with salt..."

    So it is possible that oranges are being being obtained from various sources.

  5. I’m doing it! I have about 30 orange trees in my garden as well as lemons, limes and finger limes, so they’re all brining at the moment. The process is similar (at the end) as making stem ginger which I have successfully done as I couldn’t find it here in Portugal where I live. I’ve just pickled sever jars of walnuts, these need brining for two weeks after pricking all over, then they have to sit in the sun for several days. Nothing comes easy !