Her skin was like an orange blossom soft and delicate. On December days as these she would leisurely sit on the terrace in afternoons and tell us stories from a land that once used to be her home. The slanting tender light of Kolkata’s winter brushed past her face.
Of the handful of tales that kept returning were impressions of what she called her home at the foothills of Garo Hills which had rows of orange trees. When in blossoms they would fragrant the air.
We the variously aged children would keep pressing granny for more to which she had a faint smile or few words confirming the sweetness of the narangi or orange small and round, highly edible.
Years later, I realised that what she described oft were nuggets of cultural history from a region in present day Bangladesh.
What never faded were those orange trees and her beautiful skin.
The Original O
The earliest reference of sweet orange or Citrus Sinensis dates 4000 years ago in 314BC in a Chinese manuscript. Indigenous to Southern China, North East India, Northern Bangladesh and Myanmar, the sweet orange is also the most widely farmed variety in the citrus family. USDA’s July reports showed a drop of 5 per cent in total yield and cultivation of sweet oranges and yet clearly this is the fruit that rules the world.
Sweet oranges have been integral to human civilisation. An article published in Nature (2012) notes that sweet orange has a undefined genome and is thus speculated to be a derivation from primitive species of citrus likely a pomelo and mandarin.
The word orange owes its etymology to naranga in Sanskrit which is from a root derivation of even older naru or the fragrant from the Dravidian. By the time the word hit the Late Middle English language dictionary in 14th century via French, Persian, Arabic — the 87% water bearing fruit has proven itself a global item with traces of cultural contact, exchange and appropriation completing its journey from east to the west travelling with traders, visitors, pilgrims and colonisers.
Arab traders landed in Malabar, Kerala in seventh and eighth century. However Malabar is first mentioned in chronicles of Al Baruni (a polymath of Iranian ancestry in the court of Ghaznavids who came to India in tenth century).
Records tell Arabs traders were frequent visitors and came across the citrus fruit — likely the bitter orange variety — which they carried back with them, thus introducing the word naranj in Arabic and narang in Persian.
Consequently Arabs traders are credited for introducing bitter orange Citrus aurantium to the world from India to Mesopotamian region and Levant including Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Egypt up the Red Sea to Morocco finally reaching Al-Andalus in tenth century.
Al- Andalus was an opulent kingdom and nobilities at the court of Cordoba (capital) aimed living a lavish, distinguished life. To that they grew their private, exclusive botanical gardens of exotic fruits and flowers.
Leading the show was Al Mansur — the chief minister of Cordoba who loved his high life and is credited to have introduced bitter- sour orange to Muslim Spain and all of Iberian Peninsula. Soon the fruit became popular with the farmers. They cultivated it in volumes which in turn widened its usage in the Andalusian and Moroccan gastronomy and therapeutic purposes.
Even today, Gazelle’s Ankles, a delicious cookie originating from Maghreb is known for its use of orange blossom water in its recipe as did some others were created in medieval Mediterranean and North Africa.
The Sweet Turn
But the world had to wait for the irrefutable association of O for orange and for the sweeter version that it loves. By fifteenth century, Portuguese traders took the sweeter variety of narangi arguably from India or China closer to the anglosphere routing it through Azores in Portugal and Genoa, which was then a prosperous maritime hub in modern day Liguria on Italy’s north-western coast.
A thriving commerce site between Mediterranean and Black Sea and Portuguese traders almost always stopped by it. It’s hard to zero in exactly on who planted the first sweet orange tree on the soils of Sicily and Italy but it is certain that in Sicily the linguistic abrasion of narandj or naranj happened with the ‘n’ getting dropped.
Some culinary historians also believe that a version of orange had reached Sicily earlier with the Arabs where they started calling it arangia. Either way the emergence of the word orange was now established entering both French and English language dictionaries respectively.
The sweet orange was in no time considered as edible by the Europeans. Invariably like all items that had travelled from east to west and had landed at first in the Arab world, this too quickly picked up the hype and entered European imagination stretched until twentieth century when post World War II orange was juiced in Florida and California changing the landscape of orange consumption forever.
The intent was to increase the shelf life of the extracted juice and yet not lose out on its flavour. The playing around led to orange juice from “concentrate” followed by the non-orange tasting Tang which was associated to the US Space Program. The rest is history with Tang capturing world market as then the highest selling dehydrated, ready to mix ‘orange’ drink.
But that’s another story, for now let’s return to Europe of seventeenth century where Italian and French well offs started adding exclusivity to their private orange gardens in form of making orangeries, an additional protection for the tropical plants from the harsh European winters.
The popping question is what was orangery after all! It was a glass conservatory predecessor to modern day greenhouse then made of Italian blow glass providing adequate warmth, warding off the frost.
Relevantly this was also the phase of Italy’s growing glass technology enabling large expanse of clear glass objects from huge mirrors to glass houses. Early orangeries also used brick and mortar combination with glass to allow gentle sunlight into the covered garden. Soon architects and planners got involved in designing orangeries producing majestic ones with royals and nobilities denoting them as status symbol.
Of all the European monarchs, Louis the XIV of France fell most for the fruit and ordered a regal orangery to be made at his Palace of Versailles. Historical evidences reveal that the royal orangery would have an year round cultivation of oranges in silver and bejewelled planters.
By mid-eighteen century orangeries were integral element to fancy households of the affluents including the successful fruit merchants who also used them for cultivating delicate fruits like pomegranates, bananas coming from beyond northern Europe.
The Orange Table
While men in governance and commerce were busy flaunting their orangeries as either status symbol or as advanced technology equipping exotic fruit trade, women and chefs were no way behind in showcasing the magic of oranges.
Orange as an ingredient to baking was perhaps created by Sephardic Jews as clementine cakes are credited to them. Needless to say, that it took no time for the fruit to be included as an important ingredient across a variety of baking recipes in the Iberian Peninsula and Sicily. To that the traditional Sicilian Orange Cake or Pan d’ Arancio tops the list, also adapted to Italian patisserie culture as one of the hearty home delights through the year.
A fragrant, moist zestful citrus cake Pan d’ Arancio uses whole oranges; the pulp, the peel and the juice. Together with almond flour, the cake is a sure shot sensory delight for the lovers of citron desserts. Interestingly every family in Sicily have their version of grandma recipes minutely variant from the other and is passed on to the next generation of home bakers in the family.
In no time other European countries invented their kind of orange-based dishes; the Greeks came up with orange flavoured yoghurt cake called Portokalopita cherished always with an ice cream.
Serbians vouched on their creamy Vasina Torta or the Vasa Cake a classic orange cake baked traditionally by a mother-in-law for a son-in-law.
The French of course were always there. Louise XIV’s love for oranges has gone down in history along with his grand orangery (forget the power display).
However, Canard à l’orange or the popular Duck à l’orange (Duck Roast with orange) is believed to be a dish introduced in Medici court which later travelled to France when Catherine de’Medici got married to the second son of King of France, Duke of Orleans in 1533.
Differently the French speciality is also touted as a bourgeoise cuisine an innovation by French middle class prepared with Bigarade or Orange sauce.
Among the French desserts that uses orange is the aromatic Tarte Tropézienne an orange flavoured brioche pastry created in post-World War II days by a polish baker and patisserie owner Alexandre Micka who had moved to Saint — Tropez in France. The dessert pastry uses Orange Blossom water which makes it beautifully perfumed.
Away from Europe where oranges originally belonged and landed before reaching Europe read India, China and parts of Africa also made flavourful dishes with both versions of bitter and the sweet oranges.
A quick recall even which feels sensory reminds of the delicate, aromatic Narangi Pulao of erstwhile Nawabi Awadh, Lucknow India, the Chaozhou mandarin orange cakes from the namesake city of China’s Guangdong province, and the Chiva Guisado goat stew (bitter oranges) of Dominican Republic. The list could go on. Suitably in Chinese culture oranges are associated to prosperity and good fortune, gifted during Chinese New Year.
As the year rolls down, the world torn apart, the broken world celebrates! In these celebrations somewhere there would be invariably an orange cake; moist and fragrant, crusty or creamy or a glass of freshly squeezed zesty orange juice — perhaps a symbol of hope and love.
The question is will those celebrating remember the story of orange — the sleepy lands of North Eastern India where it grew from ancient days or China’s vast variety produce or how the Arabs traders sailed with the seeds of narangi to Oman, later to Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Jaffa in Palestine which used to grow one of the best oranges of the world, or the botanical gardens of Al-Andalus or even Mansur the tenth century Wazir who helped it spread all over the Iberian Peninsula, I wonder!
But if they do for once, they would know that Orange is a glowy story of the east that Europe appropriated much later. Full stop.
Nilosree is a noted author, filmmaker