Until the 16th century, sweet oranges were virtually unknown in Europe; bitter oranges reigned supreme in royal houses and grand homes as a sumptuous and lavish seasoning.
Helena Attlee, author of the celebrated The Land Where Lemons Grow, wrote: “For 200 years at least, the unique, earthy and aromatic taste of sour orange juice was as essential to an Italian banquet as ketchup is to fast food.”
The lip-smacking juice of sour oranges, widely known in Britain and beyond as Sevilles (in honour of the area in southern Spain ideal for growing perfect specimens) prevailed until Italian and Portuguese merchants brought sweet orange versions from India to the Mediterranean.Right up until the early 19th century, whenever oranges were listed in recipes in English cookery books, this meant Seville oranges.
Given their versatility and their long history of being used widely in cooking it’s a shame that Seville oranges are mainly utilized these days in marmalade. This gorgeous amber jam made from the shredded zest and juice of Sevilles is undeniably lovely spread on toast, spooned into pies, cakes and puddings and even stirred into cocktails. But to make the most of this seasonal treat, Sevilles deserve a more prominent role in cooking.
Fresher tasting and more fragrant than vinegar or lemon juice, the vibrant perfume of Seville oranges can add magic to an array of dishes, from meat stuffing to spritzes for fish.
But first, how to choose them? The best Sevilles are firm, not too saggy, and free of blemishes. Some experts say that if you’re making marmalade and love a thicker set, opt for fruit that’s not quite ripe, as it contains more pectin. This natural gelling agent is abundant in the thick bitter rind of Sevilles.That means you don’t need to add extra pectin (by way of liquid pectin or chopped apple) to achieve the perfect set.
Like all oranges, these bitter beauties lead many different lives: the skin, oil and flesh all impart different flavours that can be deployed in a variety of ways. In Afghanistan, for example, sour oranges are still used to season food instead of salt. And orange blossom water, made from the blossom of sour oranges, is used to perfume all manner of sweet and savoury Persian dishes.
Use the juice from Sevilles in dressing to inject fresh tang into winter salads. Consider replacing the juice and zest of lemons or vinegar like for like with Seville juice in your favourite vinaigrette. Or opt for a spicier southeast Asian vibe; use Seville juice instead of lime or lemon, swap out olive oil for a flavourless oil and add a dash of sesame oil, finely sliced chilli, ginger, a splash of rice wine, fish sauce and a pinch of sugar to balance.
Instead of using lemon juice in hollandaise sauce, use the juice and zest of Sevilles to make equally delicious maltaise sauce.
Again, swap lemon juice for Seville juice to add a floral perfumed note to meat, poultry and seafood marinades. Bitter orange juice works beautifully in ceviche – acidic fruit juice is squeezed over raw fish to effectively ‘cook’ the flesh. Tuna and scallops are terrific candidates for this, and you can also use Seville juice and zest in the cure for gravlax. Just remember, seafood must be ultra-fresh if you intend to eat it raw.
A generous squeeze of Seville juice into sauces lifts, brightens and adds wonderful depth of flavour. Try it with Cochinita pibil, the famous Mexican dish similar to pulled pork. Or go full ‘70s and make Duck à l'orange, that French classic dish that comprises a whole crisp-skinned roasted duck served with an aromatic bittersweet sauce bigarade.
Alternatively, remove strips of rind (avoiding the white pith, as it’s too bitter), and dry completely in a warm room until brittle, then blitz to a powder. Sprinkle into soups, sauces and stews (especially lamb and fish dishes).
A boundless range of desserts welcome Seville juice and zest (freshly grated or in powder form, as above). Substitute for lemon juice to make mouth puckering curd, which you can spoon into tarts, on top of pavlovas or slathered on toast. Or squeeze the juice into cake batter for a tender crumb that really sings with flavour.
Seville oranges – the juice and zest - pair beautifully with fish, lamb, pork and duck; butter and eggs in sauces.
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