Blood orange

Blood orange

By
Justin North
Contains
5 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740664028
Photographer
Steve Brown

An inherited tradition

Oranges have a rich and colourful past. Believed to have originated in China and South-East Asia more than twenty million years ago, the orange can be traced through history by examining the development of its name. The word ‘orange’ is derived from the Dravidian family of languages spoken in India, which was then translated into Sanskrit.

Arabs first brought oranges to Spain, and from there they spread throughout Europe. The first oranges are said to have been more bitter than the ones we know today as Citrus sinensis – close relatives of the Seville orange.

Cultivation of the orange is thought to have commenced before 4000 BC. Citrus fruits were in the Mediterranean region well before Christian times and by the fall of the Roman Empire oranges were thriving along what is now known as the Italian Peninsula, with its warm climate and sandy soil.

Portuguese, Spanish, Arab and Dutch sailors all planted citrus trees along their trade routes once the health benefits of the orange were established, in an attempt to fend off scurvy. By law, each Spanish sailor travelling to the Americas had to carry with him 100 citrus seeds and by 1565 oranges were growing in Florida. Such conscientious transportation enabled oranges and other types of citrus fruits to flourish the world over. They now grow in all soils, favouring sandy, well-drained conditions. Orange trees are evergreen, which helps to protect the fruit from direct sunlight as it grows.

The blood orange, also known as a pigmented or Maltese orange, is distinguishable by its darker skin, but more notably its dark red flesh colour, which comes from the pigment anthocyanin, common in other red fruits and flowers but uncommon in citrus. It is native to Italy and has long been a European delicacy but is newer to Australian shores.

Arance sanguine

Australia’s Riverina district has a climate perfect for citrus fruits. The long, hot summers, and porous, sandy soil provide ideal conditions for growing blood oranges. The Mildura region, in particular, is known for its fruit production, including navel and Valencia oranges, mandarins and wine and dried fruit grapes.

This agricultural centre was a popular post-war destination for Italian farming families wanting to make their fortune, and it was here that Joe Barila arrived as a seven-yearold. Money was scarce and Joe was put to work almost immediately. ‘I didn’t get the chance for a proper schooling, I went straight to work with fruit and vegetables, as that’s what my father did,’ Joe recalls. Today, Joe still keeps a vegetable patch a few kilometres from his blood orange orchard.

Joe’s wife Maria is also of Italian descent. Her parents arrived in Australia in the early-1950s and she was born a few years later. ‘My father worked for years and finally saved enough to buy his own fruit block,’ tells Maria. Joe and Maria both have vivid childhood memories of their parents talking fondly of their homeland, and of the beauty and taste of ‘arance sanguine’ – the blood orange. Joe and Maria married in 1975 and bought the farm where they now live – in Gol Gol, eight kilometres from Mildura. They have been growing blood oranges since 1989 and the trees now occupy two hectares of the 15-hectare property.

The blood orange orchard

The skin of a blood orange can vary in colour from that of a navel orange to a bright crimson. The colour deepens as the fruit matures, and sunlight will bleach the colour from the skin of a mature blood orange. This happens especially in spring as picking time approaches and the trees are laden with fruit.

The price fetched by a blood orange is influenced by the colour of its flesh. At the farmer’s orchard, a good quality blood orange with a rich, dark flesh will sell for twice that of another strain of orange, so getting the colour right is a priority for growers.

The Barilas grow a Sicilian strain, which has a distinct raspberry flavour, and when very ripe the flesh is almost black. The colour of the flesh begins to develop with a frost: cold weather brings out the colour in the blood orange and is welcomed – in moderation. Joe has noticed changes in the weather patterns around his property since he was a child. ‘We used to have two or three frosts and then a good rain – ideal for growing blood oranges. Now we have more frosts,’ he says. Too many frosts can be detrimental to the development of the fruit.

Picking begins in August and continues until October. From the two hectares devoted to blood oranges, the Barilas harvest between 25 and 30 tons of fruit each year. They hire four or five pickers every season, depending on ability. The preferred pickers are the nomads, who follow the harvesting seasons around Australia. Pickers are paid by the bin-load, each bin holding roughly half a ton.

Picking needs to be carried out under specific conditions. The day needs to have warmed, and dried any dew on the skins of the citrus. If picked when wet, the blood orange will show up handprints a few days later. The marks are caused by naturally occurring oils on the pickers’ skin, and because of this curiosity picking starts as late as 11 a.m. on especially cold days.

The fruit is washed and packed on-site, then shipped, mostly to restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne, some to Brisbane. A small percentageis shipped abroad: America is the primary overseas customer for the Barilas’ blood oranges, but it is still a small market.

The life cycle of the blood orange begins again in the spring. Buds bloom and then blossom. These blossoms will blow away in the spring breeze to reveal a young blood orange fruit.

Recipes in this Chapter

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