In the large and juicy citrus family, apart from our well known oranges and lemons belong the tangerines, bitter oranges, bergamots, citrons, sanguine oranges, grapefruits and kumquats.
The category consists of evergreen plants that thrive in tropical, semi-tropical and temperate zones.
The citrus plants are native to India and China as well as North Africa, including perhaps Egypt though the areas cultivated with citrus fruits there were smaller. The citrus plants travelled to Greece by land and found here the ideal soil and climatic conditions which allowed them to thrive; much later, in the 15th century when the big food exchange known as the Columbian exchange took place, they travelled all the way to America.
According to Greek mythology, the citrus fruits were the gift that goddess Gaea offered at the wedding of Zeus and Hera. This holy gift was cultivated in the plain of Chania, away from human eyes, in the Garden of Hesperides. The golden (due to their colour) apples of the Hesperides that Hercules stole in his eleventh labor were nothing but simple oranges.
Their history over the years proves that beautiful citrus trees have always symbolized joy and wealth. For many reasons they managed to claim a special place in our hearts and have served as inspiration for famous painters as is the case of Vincent Van Gogh’s still life painting with a basket of six oranges. They have also inspired kings, such as Louis 14th who built the legendary Orangerie in Versailles, known today as “Musée de l’Orangerie”. Even poets –Odysseas Elytis wrote “Portokalenia” – and song makers were inspired by them, not to mention the effect on the evolution and promotion to fame they had for restless and creative spirits such as chefs and pastry chefs, distillers and daring perfumers.
In Greece, the citrus fruits are inseparably linked to life, culture, traditions and the beauty of our land.
They are the ones that embellish our everyday life: the fragrant bitter orange trees releasing their familiar aroma on the pavements and the lemon trees that decorate gardens and picturesque courtyards; they accompany us in our celebrations, our moments of joy or pain and grievances. Who has not sung and danced innumerable times songs about them in festivals and celebrations; who has not used them in his vocabulary in the form of proverbs and riddles with the inimitable phrases of ‘what a sour man’ or ‘he turned yellow like a lemon’ or “he got rid of him like a squeezed lemon” – a typical Greek phrase that describes in the most vivid way one’s expression or condition (after someone has got rid of a person having first obtained all that person had to give).
With the orange leading the group in its own right, since it has prevailed as the healthiest choice of juice at breakfast, all citrus fruits are a rich source of vitamin C. Their beneficial properties, however, are not exhausted there. Citrus fruits contain significant amounts of folic acid that belongs to the vitamin B complex as well as fiber, pectin and many substances and nutrients that are useful and beneficial for our bodies; elements that we need not only for our defense against the winter cold but also for taking advantage of the beneficial properties they offer to our skin.
With such a strong presence, their leading role in our diet would have been unavoidable. Apart from consuming them fresh, their use as supplementary material in many cooking recipes has come to stay. Despite their ‘sour’ taste, they have consolidated their position in established cooking tips and have marked product categories, since their nutritious juice and rich fragrance participate in delicious salad dressings and divine marinades for meat or fish, offering amazing flavours that enrich our meals.
How nature has provided to offer us fruit in the winter! And it is certain that this rich yellow-orange range of citrus fruits has a lot more to teach us about its uses in food, sweets, drinks, essential oils, cooking tips…
How much more can we squeeze out of them…!