Year of the Orange 0.2: The Beginning

Orange blossoms. (Photo: Louis Pieterse)

Barely a week after I dried the peels of the last of the season’s oranges, blossoms appeared to herald the next harvest. The circle of life, in orange.

It’s the new life that draws me to the garden and my eye to the green. They’re my charges, these trees and shrubs, these herbs and flowers. When the warm sun is on my back and I lean in to admire a new shoot up close, there’s love, there’s peace. There’s escape.

This column accompanies this recipe. Read Part 1 of this two-column series here.

But it’s not only the green. Every new touch of verdancy on a rose bush that had been severely pruned in July and looked all but dead; every tiny shoot on the bougainvillea that we cover every winter to save it from frost, is magnificent and inspiring, but nothing when compared to a fruit tree in blossom. In its full bloom, the orange or lemon tree is the belle of the ball, the starlet on the red carpet in the dropdead delectable garment that all other eyes will envy. It’s a tree in its prime, in full blush, flushed with success. It’s conquered the winter, the frost, the wildest elements. It’s as if the tree is saying, when you admired its new green shoots a few weeks earlier: You think that’s impressive? Wait till you see what I have for an encore.

No wonder the orange blossom is associated with good fortune and bridal bouquets. Just one look and you’re in love with it, one whiff and you’re in heaven. They say it’s an aphrodisiac too; well, so is love, so maybe that’s true in the purest sense.

Citrus sinensis. Isn’t something lost as soon as the Latin name is conjured? The simple English for it is far more romantic. Far greater is its symbolism. Of Paradise. Of love. Of chastity. Of innocence. Yet also of fertility and desire. No surprise then that it is used in many fabulous perfumes; who wouldn’t want to smell like that? 

Last weekend I was happy in my kitchen making orange blossom syrup with which to make orange blossom ice cream, using my favourite French custard ice cream recipe. But you can buy orange blossom water too, from your chemist. Try a few drops of it (and, as everyone who has used it will tell you, use it very sparingly, as it’s its subtlety that you want) in homemade custard, in scones, cakes, muffins and biscuits. Flavour a chocolate mousse with it, and pair it with nuts and crystallised fruits; make an orange blossom drizzle cake garnished with its little flowers; drop a few blossoms in a jug of homemade lemonade or orangeade, or garnish a fish, fowl or meat dish cooked with orange or other citrus with two or three of the fragrant petals. 

Orange blossoms. (Photo: Louis Pieterse)

In the United States, where it is the state flower of Florida, it flavours scones and marshmallows. To make orange blossom honey, hives are placed in orange groves when the gorgeous little white flowers are in bloom. In Spain the dried blossoms are used in tea, and they have their orange blossom coast, the Costa del Azahar.

Googling, it becomes evident that more than one chef thinks orange blossom water is great with roasted black sea bass. I find recipes for orange blossom Turkish delight, orange blossom rice biscuits; the Middle Eastern milk dessert called mahalabia; a Libyan dish of potatoes with spices and orange blossom water; Italian sfogliatelle, a bit like filo; Britain’s Maids of Honour, and French madeleines flavoured with the essence. The Syrian dessert ma’amoul is little rounds of semolina and flour dough baked with pistachios, walnuts and dates and orange blossom water. Our own Taste magazine carried a recipe for buttermilk and orange blossom parfait. I’d order that on any posh menu.

Morocco perhaps celebrates the essence best, along with old Persia or modern-day Iran. The Spruce Eats writes of its use in dates with an almond paste filling with cinnamon and orange flower water; ktefa, which has crispy pastry with sweet fried almonds and orange blossom water, and even the savoury chicken pie, chicken bastilla, with a similarly nutty and citrusy topping. It’s also in the anise and sesame rolls called krachel, in the macaron-like ghoriba, and in kaab el ghazal, little pastries of orange-scented almond paste.

You might find it in Persian jewelled rice, in saffron pudding, in saffron and orange blossom ice cream or in orange blossom preserve. In the Iranian city of Shiraz with its orange tree gardens you might think yourself in Paradise. And to think, I can have that same aroma right here in the Karoo. Just close your eyes and sniff, and you could be anywhere.

Just don’t denude your orange tree of blossoms altogether. You will want some of those oranges next winter. DM/TGIFood

Tony Jackman is the Galliova Food Writer of the Year 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is now available in the DM Shop. Buy it here.

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