Seville is famous for certain quintessentially Spanish, or Andalucian, things – flamenco, tapas and bullfighting. But say “Seville”, and many people, especially the British, will think “oranges” or “marmalade”.
For it is here where the naranjas amargas (bitter oranges) are grown which make the finest Seville orange marmalade, having an unusually high pectin content (for optimum setting). Aromatic, knobbly and thick-skinned, their official name is citrus aurantium; they originated in south-east Asia and were brought here by the Moors, who ruled Seville before being vanquished and expelled by King Fernando in the 13th century. As I read in a recipe by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, their Indian name is narayam, which means “perfume within”. How beautiful is that?
The season for Seville oranges (focussed on January and February) is coming to its short-but-not-sweet end, with the fruit still fragrancing the streets and squares of the city in glorious fashion. Being so familiar with the sight of this fruit, but knowing so little about it, a few weeks ago my children and I visited a Seville orange farm, in a town near Seville called Mairena del Alcor. An alcor is a small, rounded hill, and in their estate the house sits above the orange groves surrounding it.
Orange trees have been grown on this estate since 1867, with three types being produced today: Salustian, Navel and Seville. The family, which bought the estate in 1935, has been exporting Seville oranges to Britain for decades; this was the first certified organic orange farm in Andalucia. Huerta Ave Maria is currently the sole supplier of Seville oranges to none other than Waitrose, sending one million kilos to end up in jars on British shelves every year. And if a higher recommendation is needed, Delia Smith is a big fan; I was reliably informed that she personally requests the knobbliest possible fruit.
We took a walk around the 20-hectare estate, which was cut in half by a new road built a few years ago to a neighbouring town – the different sections are now connected by a tunnel. This is one of many orange farms in the area, though the fourth-generation owners, Amadora Gahona and Jose Manuel Bautista Vallejo, bemoan the fact that a number of farmers are being forced to sell up, since their farms are no longer viable businesses: it costs more to maintain their crop than what they make from selling the produce. In the summer, the trees need eight hours of water a day.
The price issue is further complicated another factor: the abundance of oranges which you see on trees all over the region at this time of year. Companies are contracted by local Ayuntamientos (town halls) to collect this fruit; they keep – and sell – the oranges in exchange for picking them, which obviously drives down the prices for producers like Huerta Ave Maria. And remember that all new residential developments are planted with orange trees too. So naranjos cultivated commercially on farms are chopped down and a family business disappears, because decorative ones in towns and (sometimes uninhabited) urbanizations offer cheaper produce, used mostly for pulp to make jam in factories. Go figure.
I tried a Navel orange picked fresh off the tree by Jose Manuel, and it was the sweetest, most delicious orange I’ve ever tasted – the flavour reminded me of Christmas. This variety has its season from October to December, which explains my sensory trigger, with the bitter oranges from November to March, and the prime period from late December to February. The first lorries leave for the UK at the end of December, in time for January marmalade makers. Ave Maria Oranges are favoured by top marmalade experts such as writer and tutor Vivien Lloyd.
Huerta Ave Maria is open for visits – contact them for details. The website has recipes including, naturally, marmalade ones.
A certain bear from darkest Peru, who always keeps a marmalade sandwich under his hat “in case of emergencies”, has raised the profile of Seville oranges this season, with the release of his utterly delightful film which begins and ends with scenes of marmalade-making. Apparently the Paddington effect has seen sales of the fruit shoot up by over 15% as people rekindle their love of the bitter breakfast spread.
In Seville, the local speciality is celebrated every year in February with the Jornadas de la Naranja de Sevilla. This year, 27 restaurants and bars are offering tapas flavoured with Seville orange, from fish dishes (cod with orange is a gastronomic match made in heaven) to desserts. Here is the full list of participating establishments, with their naranja de Sevilla tapas, until this Sunday, 1 March.
Part of this fiesta was a little fair celebrating products made using the oranges, from marmalade (a sweet variety, I can’t do the bitter stuff), vinegar and sparkling orange wine, to face cream and lip balm (check them out at . It was held in the Alameda, with showcooking (salmorejo with orange juice-cured ceviche) offered nearby.
My children had a blast tasting orange-flavoured olive oil, orange tortas de aceite (already a family favourite), and orange membrillo. I already know and love Bodega Gongora’s orange wine and Burnarj’s espumoso made from oranges, but abstained on this occasion, although the Burnarj vinegar smelled so good we couldn’t resist. We came away with a decent haul of well-priced goodies, the most exciting of which is orange-flavoured icing sugar from Huerta Montelirio, making its way onto a buttercream-topped belated birthday cake soon, quite possibly in combination with chocolate.
RECIPE: SEVILLE ORANGE TART
Not being the most dab-handed in the kitchen (cack-handed is more like it), I looked for a foolproof recipe to use the Seville oranges kindly given to me by Amadora and Jose Manuel. I’m not much of a marmalade fan, besides it sounds way too faffy – sterilizing jars? No thanks. As mentioned earlier, it is by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, with a few Flores Watson amendments (his has a pastry base – mine is quicker, easier, cheaper, and uses less luz). A simple base with a zingy orange curd filling, it is delicious served with crème fraiche, and I love decorating it with berries.
About 10 crushed digestive biscuits – use up any stale ones (plastic bag+rolling pin+willing helper)
Melted butter – enough to moisten your biscuit crumbs
Add butter to biscuits, press into tart dish. Chill in fridge.
400ml Seville orange juice, strained (you’ll need about 8 – 10 oranges)
Finely grated zest of one Navel orange (oops, read that wrong and used a Seville; tasted fine)
4 egg yolks (whites are for meringue topping – my electric whisker died, so we left that bit out)
250g light brown sugar (recipe didn’t specify, but I always use brown)
Pour the juice, zest and cornflour into a bowl and whisk till smooth. Simmer gently, stirring constantly, until thickens. (I didn’t have any cornflour, so my runny juice-egg-sugar mixture sat in a pan for two days waiting for me to remember to buy it; I assumed the eggy syrup would be ruined, but was pleasantly surprised when it thickened up fine. Disaster averted.)
In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar, then stir into the thickened orange juice. Bring back to a simmer, whisking until it starts to bubble (to prevent any cheeky lumps), then pour onto biscuit base. Me and the husband, both equally partial to puds, loved it, but the kids were less keen.
I reckon there’s enough oranges left to make another tart, and maybe an orange cake with orange icing too…