The other day I saw bins of Seville or bigarade oranges in the grocery store. I could smell them from where I stood about five feet away, a drift of citrus in the humdrum February air. I thought of buying some and then I remembered — I’ve already made marmalade this winter. Not with Seville oranges but with Meyer lemons and the pretty little calamondin fruit from the tree I overwinter in the sunroom. The calamondins don’t ripen all at once so I pick them as they become orange and then freeze them until there’s critical mass. (This is sort of my writing process too! The accumulating, I mean; not the freezing…) This year I used organic unrefined cane sugar and the resulting marmalade is deep amber and almost caramel in flavour. Bitter in the best way. I make it for John because I don’t usually have toast in the morning but sometimes there are croissants for breakfast and the airy pockets are perfect for a spoonful of marmalade or honey.
Citrus taxonomy is a bit complicated. Seville oranges are a cross between Citrus maxima (pommelo) and C. reticulata, which are mandarins. There are other bitter oranges too — the C. aurantium var. myrtifolia or myrtle-leaved orange, which is the basis for the lovely tangy Italian orange soda. There are Bergamot oranges, a cross between (I think) the bigarade and Citrus limetta, sweet lime or lemon used in Middle Eastern and Asian cooking. (But it’s not the one used in Persian cooking, which is a hybrid, apparently — Citrus aurantifolia, or key lime, and true lemon.) And Meyer lemons, Citrus × meyeri, are thought to be crosses between true lemons (C. limon) and mandarins or else common oranges (Citrus sinensis).
In a way, these are all synomyms for sunlight. Small globes of intense colour, so welcome in winter. I brought out a cloth last week, a bright linen tea-towel Brendan and Cristen gave me for Christmas, just to see its vivid citrus panels contrasting with summer blue and green. I hadn’t noticed before that there’s writing on the cloth. Soleil. Well, I know what that is. You do too. Sun! But soulèu? My French dictionary didn’t help. So I emailed my Francophone daughter-in-law Manon and in five minutes she’d written back: “I just did a quick research on the internet and it appears that “soulèu” is “soleil” in Provençal.”
The other night friends came for dinner and they brought a gift jar of lemon marmalade, made with lemons from their neighbours who bring the fruit back from a place they have in Palm Springs (I think it is). That reminded me that we still have some lemon marmalade left from last year, made with a few Meyer lemons from the tree I’ve had for more than 25 years and which never seems to grow much — a blessing as I have to bring it in each winter and so it needs to stay a size I can manage to carry. It does produce lemons though not at this moment. It’s coming into flower and I love to catch a little of the scent of lemon blossoms when I’m lying in bed in the mornings, drinking that first welcome cup of coffee.
Once a year the smell of bitter orange wafts through the produce section of the grocery store and it’s always at a time when we need it most. Although there was sun last week and even the first butter-yellow primulas, this week it’s raining. Fog over the mountain, the sound of owls last night when we drove home in darkness from dinner with Joe and Amy and their children. So here are some jars of sunlight on a cloth to prove it.