Here in the UK it is the season of marmalade-making. The word "marmalade" originally referred to a dish made from quince but over time quinces were replaced by oranges and the national British breakfast preserve was invented.
Citrus plants originated in China and South East Asia several thousand years ago. The first written mention of oranges comes from Arabic scholars who called it naranj. Both the common and official names are derived from the Sanskrit nagaranga which means “fruit which elephants like”.
Oranges have been a staple part of British diets since the 17th Century. King Charles II came across Nell Gwynn when she was selling oranges to theatre goers before she became his mistress and mother of his children.
Unless you suffer from orange-triggered migraines, oranges form part of most household’s daily fruit intake either as a morning juice or a snack. They are renowned for their high levels of vitamin C but less well known for their medicinal and cosmetic uses.
Most sweet oranges (Citrus aurantium var.dulcie) are grown for their sweet segments and juice. My favourites are the large fruits from Israel which arrive in the shops during December and January. There is also a bergamot orange, the peel of which provides the flavouring to Earl Grey tea.
Orange Skin Tonic
Barbara Griggs tells us that oranges are really good for the skin. She suggests taking the pulp of an orange and blending until it becomes a smooth puree. This paste can then be applied to the skin of newly washed face, neck and hands. It should be left on for 20 minutes before washing off with tepid water. Your skin can feel rejuvenated from absorbing not only vitamin C, but also beta-carotene and the complex of bioflavonoids called Vitamin P which strengthens capillaries and prevents “unsightly broken veins”.
Grated orange rind can be mixed with natural yoghurt to make a moisturising face mask to revitalise skin.
Oranges have a long history of keeping rooms and clothes smelling sweet by covering them with cloves and allowing to dry naturally. It is a lengthy process of making holes in the orange skin, pressing in the clove until the whole surface area is filled. The pomander can then be rubbed with ground cloves and salt and hung up with ribbons until dry.
Apart from eating, orange have been used primarily for perfumery and flavouring through the production of essential oils and other distillates such as orange flower water. Leaves, flowers and fruit can be used, the flowers producing Neroli essential oil and the leaves and young shoots produce “petitgrain”. They also have medicinal qualities
Orange leaves make a mild herb tea with sedative effects. It is also diaphoretic which can raise body temperature into a sweat if help is required to break a fever.
In Mrs Grieve’s time, an infusion of dried flowers was used as a mild nervous stimulant by European herbalists.
Orange flower water, a by-product of Neroli essential oil production, can be used for headaches, flavouring any kind of cooking or baking and is gentle enough to relieve colic in babies.
Orange peel is gaining in popularity as a general bitter. As most people suffer with “bitter deficiency”, orange peel can be added to formulas to provide a cooling and bitter principle. I’ve added fresh peel to elixirs, infused honeys and spiced flax seed tea but you do have to take care not to add a large amount if the peel is dried or the bitterness can become unpalatable.
Seville orange, or bitter orange (Citrus aurantium var.amara), has a very short window of availability. They appear in UK shops for approximately three weeks at the end of January. They look unappetising as the growers are not allowed to wax their skin but are snapped up by marmalade lovers across the country in order to make their favourite breakfast preserve.
6 Seville oranges
3 sweet oranges
3 pts (UK) water
3 lbs sugar
Slice all fruit as thinly as possible removing pips. Place pips in a cup and cover with boiling water and soak for 24 hours. Place fruit in an earthenware bowl, cover with 5 pts water and leave to soak for 24 hrs. Tip into saucepan with pips suspended in a muslin bag. Boil gently until peel is tender (about ¾ hr). Remove pips. Add sugar. Boil quickly until a set is obtained then stop all heating and pour into sterilised jars.
Marmalade is not the only product of Seville oranges. You can also make a delicious digestive bitter using cardomoms, honey and diced peel. It is one of the most popular “tastes” I offer when I am giving herbal demonstrations.
Seville Orange bitter
Slice your Seville oranges and squeeze out the juice. Use the juice to make a jelly later. Dice the peel and loosely fill an empty jam jar with the diced peel, a tablespoonful of cardamon pods and a few fennel or anise seeds. If you wish, add not more than two cloves. Add a tablespoon of honey. Mix this with the peel. Fill the jar up with vodka and “podge” with a chopstick to remove air bubbles. Refill the jar with vodka, seal, label and date. Keep in a dark cupboard for a month to infuse, shaking occasionally, then strain off and bottle the liquid. Take half a teaspoonful 15-30 minutes before meals to improve digestion.
If you wish to be frugal, you can use the peel again with fresh spices and honey to make a further bitter.
Orange peel vinegar
You can also use any orange (or lemon or grapefruit) peel to make a versatile household cleaner with white wine vinegar. Place the diced peel in a glass jar, cover with vinegar, seal, label and date. Leave for three weeks to infuse in a warm dark place, then strain and use in dilution with bicarbonate of soda to clean sinks, baths, worktops and ovens. If you inadvertently taste the vinegar it is incredibly bitter!
Bruton-Seal, J & Seal, M Kitchen Medicine: Household Remedies for Common Ailments and Domestic Emergencies 2010 Merlin Unwin Books Ltd ISBN 978 1 906122188
Grieve, M A Modern Herbal 1973 (revised) Random House ISBN 1-904779018
Griggs, B The Greenwitch: A Modern Women’s Herbal 1993 Random House Publishing Ltd ISBN 0 09 182681 0