Many years ago I ordered an orange juice at the bar of the Hotel Principe e Savoia in Milan. When it arrived, I sent it back. ‘I said orange juice, not tomato juice,’ I commanded in a lordly manner. The barman sent it back again. ‘It is orange juice’, he insisted. ‘Blood orange juice.’ My life has been made up of minor humiliations of this kind.
I’ve had a thing about blood oranges ever since, that husky, musky, sweet and meaty flavour, that brilliant, crimson colour. According to Helena Atlee’s delightful and instructive ‘The Land Where Lemons Grow’, blood oranges were first recorded by one Giovanni Battista Ferrari in 1646 in Hesperides. He surmised that they had first been brought to Sicily from China by a nameless Genoese missionary. (Italians got everywhere in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries – Christopher Columbus, Marco Polo, Giovanni Caboto aka John Cabot, Amerigo Vespucci, Giovanni Pian del Carpine, Giovanni da Verrazzano among others).
The red is a sign of anthocyanin pigments, the red, blue and purple colours variously found in blueberries, cranberries, bilberries, apples, red cabbage, aubergines, radishes, violet cauliflowers much loved in Sicily and blue potatoes. Anthoncyanins are supposed to be terribly good for you, packed with vitamin C and antioxidant properties, protecting us against certain types of cancer, lowering the risk of hearty disease, boosting circulation etc etc. Well, it’s always good to know that pleasure and virtue go hand in hand for once.
There are some twenty four varieties such as Sanguinello, Ippolito, Entrefina, Delfino , Smith Red Valencia, Maltese, Moro, Tarocco, and these days they’re grown wherever oranges are found – Brazil, Californian Florida, Tunisia, Morocco and so on. If you really want to explore the world of blood orange in more detail (and citrus more widely, come to that), log onto http://citruspages.free.fr/bloodoranges.html#varieties. It’s absolutely magisterial.
But what I find most delightful of all about the blood orange is that the production of these splendid anthocyanin pigments is triggered by a difference of at least 10C between the day time and night time temperatures. Without that variation, the pigments don’t develop reliably in oranges and the colour of the skin is no indication of just how bloody your blood orange will be inside. However, it’s generally agreed that the best blood oranges – Sanuinello Moscato (or Paterno), Moro, Tarocco – grow in the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily, where the growing conditions are most dependable..
Unlike most other fruits these days, they’re seasonal in Europe, roughly from December to May. So hurry while they’re still in their pomp. Look out for Tarocco and Moro with Sicilian provenance in particular. The Sicilians eat most of their Sanguinello Moscato/Paterno oranges themselves, sensible people.
NB. The fruits in the bowl are a mixture of Spanish Ippolito and Sicilian Tarocco oranges, with the smaller clementines if you’re wondering