Sweet on naartjies

Sweet on naartjies
Ripe naartjies, preserved whole naartjies, and green naartjies. (Photo: Louis Pieterse)

Mandarin, satsuma, tangerine, easy peeler, citrus reticulata. But to a South African it’s a naartjie, the little citrus fruit we love to love.


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This column accompanies this recipe

“Eh, did you ’ear that,” said the lady in the High Street shop when my wife had bitten into a naartjie, or whatever the equivalent of it is in England. “She calls her clementine Archie!”

There followed a significant eyeroll.

Is a naartjie a Clementine? No, although sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference with soft citrus that loosens easily from its shell, like the naartjie. Clementine is citrus clementina (there’s a clue in the name), whereas the naartjie is citrus reticulata, a member of the satsuma, mandarin, tangerine clan. Arguably. It is confusing, because when you google both naartjie and clementine, descriptions for both come up which seem pretty interchangeable. But in the four years of living in Chichester I never once tasted a clementine with the naartjie texture and flavour I was hoping for. Naartjie has a sweetness just on the edge of sour, clementine is sweet all the way. Mandarin, quite different, even if the segments are also tiny.

A Dictionary of South African English by Jean Branford (1978) gives alternative descriptions of “naartjie” as either “naartjie” or “naartjie”, according to a perhaps suspect Wikipedia search, which seems to settle the argument, whereas clementines have been described as a small, sweet orange, “the result of a cross between a tangerine and a Seville orange”. I’d take that with a pinch of naartjie zest.

(Photo: Louis Pieterse)

If further confusion were needed, Wikipedia steers well clear of pronouncing anything more emphatic than “we don’t really know but would love you to tell us”. On a Wiki “talk” page (where the sort of people who like to contribute to their definitions put their oar’s worth in), a source avers that a satsuma is “very different from the local naartjie”. (We’re not arguing.)

Naartjies,” says our grammatically imperfect expert, “are usualy quite small and have a hard skin. Taste is quite sharp with a strong citrus tang very close to a lemon. Satusam’s on the other hand are larger, and have a loose and softer skin. The segments are easily pulled apart, taste is very sweet and less acidic than the naartjie. Manderins and Satsuma’s are virtually identical, except the Manderin is usually a lot smaller than either three.” Erm, no, a naartjie doesn’t taste anything like a lemon; nor does a satusam or a manderin.

The person is however correct in asserting that the book Tavern of the Seas was indeed written by Lawrence Greene, and not Graham Green, the former of whom undoubtedly would have been able to tell his naartjie from his satusam.

Citrus unshiu turns out to have its own Wikipedia entry, and if you type “Wikipedia naartjie” into your browser, guess what the algorithms throw up? Citrus unshiu. And at the top of the page things become even more befuddled, or at least I did. “Naartjie redirects here. For other uses see Naartjie (clothing retailer).

Ripe naartjies, preserved whole naartjies, and green naartjies. (Photo: Louis Pieterse)

But all is not lost (maybe). The same page then offers a description, which seems a bit of a cheek, really: “Citrus unshiu is a semi-seedless and easy-peeling citrus species, also known as unshiu mikan, cold hardy mandarin, satsuma mandarin, satsuma orange, naartjie, and tangerine.” Well, that narrows it down. But, to state that boldly that naartjie is just another name for the abovementioned? Maybe it’s also a name for nothing left to lose.

“It is of Chinese origin, named after Usyu (Wenzhou), China, but introduced to the West via Japan.” Right. Wikipedia might want to have a fresh look at all that.

Did you know that naartjies can be even more “naar” (sour/bitter) if picked green? The flesh is vivid yellow in the unripened fruit. Beautiful. And sweetly sour. I plan to make marmalade of both green and ripe naartjies, and to dry (ripened) naartjie peel to then grind the dried zest into a powder.

Louis Leipoldt, the great Cape colonial gourmand, mentions naartjie peel many times in his volumes of words about food, more often than not urging one to add a little dried naartjie peel to a dish, whether a chutney, atchar or some or other hearty old Cape stew.

Concluding his chapter on methods of cooking, he writes: “… I may briefly refer to one or two other flavourings that are mentioned in many recipes. One is tangerine peel (naartjieskil), the dried rind of the tangerine or mandarin orange commonly found throughout South Africa. It is used in small pieces, for it is a strong and distinctive flavouring, and nearly always for sweet dishes.”

He makes no mention of satsumas (or satusams). He knew more about these things than Wikipedia seems to. DM/TGIFood

(Photo: Louis Pieterse)

To enquire about Tony Jackman’s book, foodSTUFF (Human & Rousseau) please email him at [email protected]


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