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Food in the 'Hood

Sweet for Sour Oranges

Its scent imbues Earl Gray tea and its peel is essential for the British marmalade. Born in the East, the scarlet-skinned sour orange captivated the West several hundred years before the arrival of its sweet cousin in early 16th century Europe. Domesticated in India, the orange was loved for the intoxicating fragrance of its skin and flowers. It was generally not coveted for eating and juicing. The tree, which had dark green foliage and whose flowers bloomed in beautiful white colors, was planted to ornament the landscape.

Hindus called the fruit naranga, a word whose first syllable means fragrance. The Persians, who adopted it from India, named the orange narang. The versatile fruit, which grew wild along the Caspian, brought its aroma to Persian cooking. Blossoms were used for jam and the skin perfumed rice dishes and stews.

The Arabs, who transported it to the Mediterranean, discovered the fruit during their reign in Persia in the 7th century A.D. Like so many other elements of Persian culture, the fruit seduced the invaders. They soon made the sour orange their own, changing its name to naranj because they couldn’t pronounce the ‘g.’

The Islamic warriors built an empire that stretched from the Middle East to the Mediterranean. During their rule, from the 7th through the 12th centuries, the colonizers brought the orange along with the pomegranate, sugarcane, spinach, and a host of other new plants to their possessions. Accomplished agriculturalists, they planted citrus seeds first in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Palestine. They moved on to grow sour oranges in their colonies in Spain and Sicily.

The orange tree was displayed lavishly in Spain. The Moors created gardens with luxuriant citrus and with tulips, jasmine, lilacs, and other flowering plants from the East. The brilliant evergreen adorned the courtyards of mosques, palaces, and royal residences. Orange and lemon trees graced the Alhambra, the palace complex in Grenada. The mosque in the Spanish city of Cordova boasted the Patio de los Noranjos, a courtyard resplendent with 19 rows of orange trees, each leading up to one of the building’s arched openings. The grandeur of many of these settings was enhanced with pools and fountains. The magnificence, some suggest, was meant to represent an earthly paradise complete with the sensuous pleasures and beauty of the Islamic afterlife.

The Arabs also drew intense pleasure from the fragrant fruit itself. They preserved bitter oranges and their skins in sugar, fashioning a forerunner of marmalade. Cooks enlivened dishes with their aromatic juice. (One variety of the bitter orange, the Seville, came to be used especially for marmalade.) From the flowers they distilled orange blossom water (mazaher), a fragrant liquid akin to rose water. In Morocco, another Moorish society, where many families have made their own orange blossom water, a carrot salad is dressed with the aromatic. Sliced oranges redolent of cinnamon and the citric perfume are a Moroccan dessert.

Orange blossom water often lends its aroma to baklava and other Arab sweets. Adding a few drops to boiling water yields a treat called white coffee. A little sugar and the aromatic in warm milk will put you to sleep at bedtime.

Mazaher invested domestic life with sensual pleasure. After washing their hands, Arabs often perfumed them with a dash of flower water. In 14th century Sicily, the Oxford Companion to Food notes, bed linen was frequently scented with orange blossom water. The island’s aristocrats undoubtedly inherited the custom from the former Arab rulers.

The orange also acquired a sacred and ceremonial role. The Moors introduced the custom for brides to wear orange blossoms. The flowers continue to be part of the Spanish marriage bouquet. To the Muslims, the white flowers were an emblem of chastity and the orange fruit, a symbol of fecundity.

Citrus confections would soon reach Europe from the Arab world. Beginning in the 17th century, marmalade produced from Seville oranges was shipped to England and France. The Arabs had not only planted oranges but also sugar cane in their realm. (By the 10th century, sugar was being grown as a cash crop in Egypt, Persia, Sicily, and Southern Spain.) Marrying the two ingredients, Arab confectioners turned out candied fruits. First boiled in water, oranges and lemons were preserved in sugar. “Suckets,” or candied orange and lemon peels, caught the fancy of the English. At the coronation of Pope Clement VI, diners indulged in “candied fruit of many colors,” which were served in two courses of the feast. Soon European chefs were borrowing the Arab arts and making delicacies using these techniques.

Europe’s leisure classes demanded the novel fragrance. Italian novelist Bocaccio writes of the Sicilian courtesan who wooed her clients with tantalizing aromas. “Her own chamber . . . was perfumed with roses, orange-flowers, and other costly scents.” Noble women bathed in orange-scented water. “The perfumers and hairdressers . . .  every morning supply the ladies rooms with rose water, citrus-blossom water, and myrtle water,” the 16th century French writer Rabelais observed of a manor house.

To satisfy the desires of the aristocracy, merchants shipped oranges from southern France, particularly Provence where they were grown, to northern cities. Paper-wrapped sour oranges from the French and Italian Riviera arrived from Nice. Barrels of orange blossom flowers were shipped north in the spring.

Flower water, it was said, could also ward off the body’s ills. “Orange-flower water is not only preferred over all other perfumes, but made up into medicaments it is very useful against fever,” the Italian botanist and physician Petrus Andreas Matthiolus pointed out.

We even owe the original cologne to the sour orange. Its fragrance invigorates Eau de Cologne, a new “water” manufactured in the early 18th century in the German city of that name. John Maria Farina, its inventor, explained the secrets behind its aroma: “I have created a perfume which is reminiscent of a spring morning following a soft shower where fragrance of wild narcissi combine to that of sweet orange flowers. The perfume refreshes me and stimulates both my senses and imagination.” Oil from the Bergamot orange, a bitter variety, was an essential component of the product. The cologne was also marketed as a health aid, as a preventive for tooth decay and bad breath as well as for infectious diseases.

Europe’s nobles and royals reveled in the fragrance. Napoleon Bonaparte, it was said, finished a bottle of the “water” every day and enjoyed sugar cubes dipped in it. The same rapturous fragrance permeates many of today’s colognes.

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Savoring the Sour Orange

Khartoum Grocery and Halal Meat (2116 18th St., NW; 202-265-7100.  This Adams Morgan Middle Eastern food shop sells the Cortas orange blossom product and a variety of other sensory delights from the Arab world.

Fresh Med (3813 Conn. Ave., NW; 202-244-3955). This delicatessen/grocery carries Cortas orange blossom water.

For bitter orange marmalades and other Spanish foods, order from La Tienda at www.tienda.com.

Joel Denker, a Peace Corp volunteer in Africa many years ago, is the author of Capital Flavors: Exploring Washington's Ethnic Restaurants (1988, Seven Locks Press), which evolved from his series in this newspaper two decades ago, known then as "The Ethnic Bazaar." He is also the author of The World on a Plate: A Tour Through the History of America's Ethnic Cuisine (paperback, 2007 / University of Nebraska Press), in which part of one chapter was drawn from articles that originally had appeared in this space. In addition, he has written about ethnic food for the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Enquirer, Washingtonian, as well as continuing his monthly food column with The InTowner.

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