Blood oranges are a fruit with a troubled recent history. They grow best in a small area to the south of Mount Etna in Sicily, but low wholesale prices and fragmented production have squeezed out many of the smaller growers.
These days, there is growing awareness of the unique qualities of these wonderful oranges.
But there is also increased competition - especially from growers in Spain, from where the Sanguinello variety is exported in increasing volumes.
- There are three main varieties of blood orange: Tarocco (lightest in colour, December-May); Moro (darkest, January-February); and Sanguinello (March-May). Each has multiple own sub-varieties, too, for example an early or late Tarocco.
- The dark colouring is caused by the anthocyanin pigment found in the fruit. This is also present in produce such as purple cauliflowers, blueberries and raspberries, explains Wikipedia.
It states: "Anthocyanins (also anthocyans; from Greek: ἄνθος (anthos) "flower" and κυάνεος/κυανοῦς kyaneos/kyanous "dark blue") are water-soluble vacuolar pigments that, depending on their pH, may appear red, purple, or blue".
- For blood oranges to blush, they require the night time temperature to drop to -1 or -2°C for at least an hour. This means that over 24 hours there is a swing of nearly 20 degrees between day and night.
Growing and harvesting
The blood oranges grown around Mount Etna have the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI). This microclimate is blessed with volcanic soil plus the ideal weather and temperatures to produce quality fruit.
I visited one grower, Rudolf Freiherr von Freyberg. On his 125-hectare estate he produces around 2,000 tonnes of organic citrus each year: blood oranges; tangerines; mandarins; blondes; and lemons. The land has been connected to his family for a thousand years.
"If we have a fierce winter they are sweet and red,” he explains. “In a mild winter the fruit stays sour and green.”
Von Freyberg says that the average size of a citrus plot in Sicily is only 2.5 hectares, which is no longer sufficient to earn a decent living. (“In the old days you could live grand – now you can’t.”)
The blood orange crop is purchased by packing houses while it is still on the tree. These companies often send in their own pickers, who harvest around 1,000 kilos of fruit per day.
Here are some quick ideas:
- At Trullo, an Italian restaurant in Highbury, they are serving whole mackerel with kohlrabi, blood orange and mint; at Bocca di Lupo in Soho it's a blood orange granita with almonds and mint.
To gather further culinary inspiration, I visited chef Giorgio Locatelli at his Michelin-starred restaurant Locanda Locatelli in London.
He buys fruit and veg from Vincenzo Ltd, a specialist Italian catering supplier based on the Market.
"It’s quite important with oranges like that to use salt. They are sweet but in a different way to the Spanish orange. It helps to flatten the acidity down."
At the restaurant, they serve a salad of burrata, fennel and olives.
The fennel is lightly braised first; the dressing is an emulsion of the blood orange juice and olive oil, with a touch of vinegar. This dish is finished with olive oil, chives and black pepper.
They also make small cannoli, stuffed with ricotta, dusted with pistachio and served with a blood orange compote and a pistachio ice cream.
In the past, Locatelli explains, they have served breast of duck with blood orange sauce – about halfway between a classic madeira and orange sauce, with duck stock, blood orange juice, the orange peel and segments of the orange, added right at the end.
"I think we did a blood orange soufflé one time. We took the orange, emptied it out then froze the skin. We have the mixture ready, fill the orange then straight in the oven."