Best of Sicily
Food & Wine
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It's difficult to know just
when oranges were introduced into what is now Italy. From their travels
to the southern and eastern reaches of their Empire, the Romans knew of
them, and oranges are occasionally depicted in Roman art. However, it is
generally accepted as fact that citrus fruits (oranges, lemons, citron)
were first cultivated in Sicily during the Arab period. In other words,
the ninth and tenth centuries. Indeed, the modern English word
orange, like the Italian arancia, probably derives from
the Arabic naranj. Oranges are native to tropical Asia,
particularly the Malay region. Any reddish fruit in the genus citrus and
the family rutaceae, specifically citrus arantium, is an
Cultivation of oranges gradually spread through China and India to
east Africa and then to the Mediterranean region. The trees enjoy a mild
climate, sunny weather and good drainage. An occasional frost or chill
does not harm them. Originally, oranges had seeds. The navel orange
(which Italians call the "brasiliana") was developed in the
Blood oranges are so called for their red flesh and deep red juice.
When ripe, their skin may also be reddish, at least in part. In the
British Empire, blood oranges were called "Maltese" oranges,
and are closely related to Jaffa oranges. In Sicily, the most popular
blood oranges are the Tarocco, the Moro and the
Sanguigno, the latter cultivated extensively in the eastern part
of the island as the Sanguinello (shown here) of Paternò and Adernò.
Though consumed in salads and desserts, blood oranges are favored for
their distinctive red juice which, as it happens, is exceptionally
healthy, being rich in antioxidants. Blood oranges are rarely very sweet.
Mandarins, Valencias and navel oranges are also grown in Sicily, but
the blood orange is considered particularly Sicilian, perhaps because it
is not as widely cultivated in Calabria, Spain or Greece. It is worth
mentioning that, as regards citrus fruits generally, Italy is one of the
world's largest producers of lemons, most of which are harvested in
Sicily. It was this citrus production that earned the hills and valleys
around Palermo the name "Conca d'Oro" (golden seashell) in the
Be warned that some of the orange drinks sold in Italy as being made
from "Sicilian blood oranges," while they may contain some natural juice, are artificially colored.
About the Author: Roberta Gangi has written numerous articles and one book dealing with Italian cultural and culinary history, and several food articles for Best of Sicily Magazine.