Susanna Riffs On Kumquats, Bitter Orange And Some Other Strange Citrus Fruits

by Dr. Susanna Hoffman

So standard are the selections in our markets, we rarely see some of the hundreds of varieties of citrus fruit that grows about the world. But every now and then, a sample of one of the ancient or very new sorts comes our way. Some are:

Kumquats – are a small citrus fruit, looking rather like orange fingerlings, that grow on a bushy shrub with dark green shiny leaves rather than a tall tree. They originated, were eaten, and admired in China and were unknown in the West until they were brought to England in 1846 by Robert Fortune, a specimen collector for The London Botanical Society. He envisioned them as a landscaping ornamental, not an edible, and that was how they first spread across Europe and to the Americas, as a garden shrub. Their bushiness is useful in creating boundaries and privacy, plus they are pretty and when blossoming, fragrant. They also taste wonderful, raw or cooked like powerful, but tart little oranges. In cooking they soften up. They are only available for short seasons once or twice a year.     

Bitter Orange – refers to one of the two species of orange that was once popular, but has declined in importance. There a several varieties, all of which grow on small evergreen trees. Some seem to be native to southwest China and northwest India, but the variety still most used comes from Vietnam. That one, amara, is the orange used in marmalade, the grafting stock for the orange flavoring Triple Sec and Curacao, and produces the orange blossoms used in orange flower water.  Another variety, bergamot, named for the ancient city of Pergamon, now in Turkey, where they were cultivated or else from the Turkish, “the master’s (bey) pear”– they are small, rough, and slightly pear shaped.  They were the main orange of the ancient Mediterranean, perhaps at some early time a cross breed of Seville orange and early lemon. Still popular in Mediterranean countries they are candied, made into sweet preserves, and used in perfumery. They were also used early to flavor tea.
Seville – a variety of bitter orange different enough to note became very popular in Spain.  Most are exported to Britain to be used in making marmalade. Bitter oranges were imported to St. Augustine, Florida by the Spanish and are still grown in that state. 

White Sapote – from central Mexico is a distant relative of citrus. The fruit is round, the skin usually green, and they too, are bitter.

The Kaffir Lime – another Southeast Asian citrus is again pear shaped, though wrinkled and green. The fruit is used in cooking, but more are its strange, double shaped, floral yet tart leaves. They are a common flavoring in Thai food. Southeast Asia also produces red limes.

Buddha’s Hand – is a variety of citron, very lemony in flavor, that is shaped like a hand with dangling fingers. It is though to be the first citrus fruit known in Europe, brought back by the Greeks and Romans from India. It is seedless and juiceless and is used as an offering in Buddhist temples and is also applied as perfume to rooms and clothing. It is also grown in Southern California. 

There are as well blood oranges and many hybrid citrus, such as the Ugli, a combination of grapefruit and tangerine. But these, though seasonal, are common items in markets, not rarities. As for medlar, which are sometimes called loquats, and true loquats, which are popular in Japan, though both grow on evergreen trees like citrus, they are not of the citrus family.  Medlars were the most common fruit serfs had the chance to eat in Mediaeval Europe and they are still grown and enjoyed in Mediterranean countries and in the Near East.  

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