The perfect orange is something you come across by surprise on a grey January morning. Its flesh the colour of sunset, its juice at once both sweet and sharp. It may come from Italy, Spain or Morocco. It might be no bigger than a tennis ball. The perfect orange is unlikely to be very shiny and is just as inclined to come in a job lot from a barrow boy as it is to come cosseted in tissue. But there it is in your hand, a fruit so full of joy it makes you want to laugh out loud.
There is much vulgarity in a modern orange - the neon vibrancy of its skin and juice as sweet as a glass of squash. Sad, too, the way they are piled high at the greengrocers, a long-life, indestructible commodity displayed, indifferent to season and without any hint to the fruit's exotic and fragrant roots.
The orange tree bares its perfumed white flowers and its green and ripe fruit at the same time. The scent of the blossom is released as your hand brushes past on its way to pluck each fruit. The romance continues with the skin, which will, when punctured with a thumbnail, send fine spurts of aromatic mist into the cool air. Imagine these apricot-coloured fruits, their glossy green leaves and a single white blossom still attached, displayed in the shops like a rare and scented jewel.
It is possible to rescue some of this fruit's mystery at the turn of the year when we have a choice: freckled 'bloods' with their sweet magenta juice; pungently sour 'marmalade' oranges from Seville; tiddly teardrop-shaped kumquats to eat, pip and all; and those pink-flecked Italian fruit, their deep yellow flesh dashed with carmine, as if splashed from a paint brush. Originally from China, and brought to Europe by the Arabs, an orange should be as special as a peach or a melon.
Even the name has coarsened over the centuries. Three thousand years ago, it was known to the Indians as narayam ('perfume within'); the Arab traders called it narandj and took it to Spain ( naranja ) and Italy, where it became arancia . It took little to go from the French orange , still beautiful if you say it in a thick local accent, to the ugly English 'orindge'. No wonder we now pile it high and sell it cheap.
The magic is still there, in the zest, the fragrant oil held in the outer layer of skin. It is the essence of the fruit and has the subtlety of the flower married with the spicy hint of bubbling marmalade. The peel is only worth using, finely grated as a flavouring for cakes, soufflés and syrups, if the fruit has not been treated with wax for keeping. How many times have I seen an instruction to scrub the fruit well before use? Yet a good scrubbing will release almost as much of the precious oil as will a fine-toothed grater. A nail brush and some Fairy Liquid should not be on any recipe's ingredient list. Better, surely, to purchase untreated fruits. Grating oranges on a winter afternoon is high on that long list of Pleasures of the Kitchen. The pleasure stops with a bang as soon you catch a knuckle on the saw-teeth of the grater.
I often add long strips of peel, carefully shorn to exclude any of the bitter white pith, into the poaching liquor for pears (Comice pears, water, sugar, a vanilla pod simmered till the pears are swollen and butter-soft), or in a rabbit stew with thyme and juniper berries.
Citrus zest and juice are good with cake or pudding. The sharpness lifts the bland alchemy of butter, sugar, eggs and flour. This must be why marmalade tart is always such a treat. A favourite cake is that classic Moorish almond sponge, the one where the warm cake is left to soak in a thick syrup of orange juice and sugar with a drop of orangeblossom water. I applied this chemistry to a steamed pudding this week, firstly with marmalade in the bottom (too strong, it overpowered the subtlety of the sponge) and secondly with apricot jam. The latter worked like a dream, the sharp preserve flattering the grated zest and juice in the sponge. Then I made a jelly from blood oranges and cardamom seed, as different from the packet stuff as orangeblossom water is from Sunny Delight.
Steamed orange and lemon pudding
A steamed pudding, with its magical chemistry of butter, sugar, eggs and flour, probably stands high on anyone's list of comfort cooking. But here you must also add the heavenly nip of apricot and citrus that wafts through the fuggy kitchen as it cooks. Such puddings are an occasional treat, so I think we can go for broke - I made mine with organic Welsh butter, organic caster sugar and flour, unwaxed oranges and lemons and the best French apricot preserve. Serious pleasure here. Serves 4-5.
125g soft butter
125g golden caster sugar
2 large eggs
125g self-raising flour
the grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
the grated zest of two oranges, plus the juice of one of them
180g good-quality apricot jam, such as Bonne Maman
Get the boring bit over first. Butter a 1 litre pudding basin and cut a piece of greaseproof paper large enough to cover the top with good room to spare (it will act as a hat to protect the pud as it steams). Cut a piece of tin foil or clean muslin which is large enough to go over the top of that, then find a few thick rubber bands and a piece of string. If you do this sort of thing regularly, you will probably already have the plastic steamed-pudding bowl with snap-on lid that dispenses with all this malarkey.
Cream the butter and sugar in a food mixer or using a hand-held electric whisk until it is smooth and fluffy, then add the eggs, one at a time. Fold in the flour with a large metal spoon, then stir in the grated zest of the oranges and lemon. Squeeze the juice of the lemon and one of the oranges and gently, firmly fold it in. You are aiming for a texture that will fall from the spoon with a firm shake. If it appears to be getting sloppy, stop adding the juice.
Spoon the jam into the bottom of the buttered basin, then smooth the sponge mixture over the top of it. Lay the prepared piece of greaseproof paper over the top, folding a finger-thick pleat across the middle as you do (this stops the paper splitting as the pudding rises), then secure it with a rubber band. Now tie the muslin or foil over that, first with the rubber band and then with the string. If the water gets in, you'll have a soggy pudding.
Place the pudding basin in a very large saucepan and pour boiling water round it, coming almost halfway up the sides of the basin. Cover with a lid and let it steam for an hour and a half, topping up the water with boiling water from the kettle if and when it gets low.
Switch the heat off and leave for a few minutes, before unwrapping and turning out.
Orange jelly with lemon and cardamom
I get a childish kick out of serving jelly to adults. But they always enjoy it, and especially after a spicy meal. Use as little gelatine as you can get away with, so it shimmers, barely set, on the spoon. I use 7 sheets of gelatine to 1 litre of liquid, which means the finished dessert is too fragile to turn out, and I usually serve it in wine glasses. I add the extra one (leaf gelatine comes in packets of 8) when I am offering it to people who prefer their jelly to have a distinct wobble. The addition of cardamom is a subtle one and, I suppose, gives it a faintly Moorish tone. Enough for 8.
12 large and juicy oranges (to give just under 1 litre of juice)
1 unwaxed pink grapefruit
1 unwaxed lemon
6 green cardamom pods
7-8 sheets of gelatine
Squeeze the oranges. You need just under 1 litre of juice, so stop when you have enough, or do a few more if you stop very short of a full litre. Much will depend on the size, type and age of your fruit.
Squeeze the grapefruit and the lemon, but keep the juice separate from the orange, then remove 3 or 4 strips of zest from each with a short sharp knife. Pour these juices into a small stainless-steel or enamelled saucepan with an equal quantity of water and drop in the pared zest. Split open the cardamom seeds by pressing gently on them with the flat of a large knife, then add them to the juice and bring it almost to a boil. As soon as the juice is about to start bubbling, cover it with a lid and turn off the heat. Leave the juice to cool a little - about 15 minutes should be long enough.
Now slide the gelatine sheets - one or two at a time, rather than in a big lump - into a bowl of cold water, and let them soften for 5 minutes.
Remove the lid, stopping for a second or two to breathe in the wonderful smell of citrus and cardamom, then pour through a sieve into a large, scrupulously clean bowl. Reserve the cardamom seeds. Lift the softened gelatine sheets from the water (they will be just short of dissolving), and stir them into the warm grapefruit and lemon juice. The gelatine will dissolve in seconds.
Pour the orange juice into the grapefruit and lemon juice and stir thoroughly, making certain that every bit of gelatine has melted. Add the reserved cardamom pods into the juice - they will float around, apparently pointlessly, but will in fact discreetly give some of their flavour to the jelly as it sets. Refrigerate for a good 4 or 5 hours.