From simple Asian origins to global domination via tortoise pies and Nell Gwyn’s day job, Mark Riddaway on the baffling history of citrus
The story of citrus is the War & Peace of food histories: a baffling narrative of complex couplings and confusing names, with a staggeringly large cast of characters. It started simply enough: millions of years ago, four main species of citrus—the citron, the pomelo, the mandarin and the papeda—evolved in east Asia from a single common ancestor. Then things got complicated.
As the millennia passed, these fruits hybridised with each other in the wild, crossing and re-crossing, creating distinctive new species. After humans got involved, adding their ingenuity and invention to the fruits’ natural inclination towards diversity, the genus’s cast list hit Tolstoy-esque proportions. In 1178, the Chinese writer Han Yen-chih provided a detailed description of 28 different citrus fruits, including sour oranges, sweet oranges, mandarins, kumquats and trifoliate oranges. Today, the University of California Riverside’s ‘selected’ list of citrus varieties numbers just shy of 1,200.
Our vocabulary has struggled to keep pace. The sour oranges (Citrus aurantium) that we pack into marmalade are a different species to the sweet oranges (Citrus sinensis) that we peel and munch on—the former is a direct cross between a mandarin and a pomelo, the latter a second-generation cross with a higher percentage of mandarin in the mix—but both are given the same name. We also call a mandarin an orange, even though it isn’t.
The lemon (Citrus limon) is a hybrid of sour orange and citron, but the French call it ‘citron’, just to really confuse things. The lime (Citrus aurantiifolia) was probably a natural cross between papeda and citron, but we also refer to numerous other citrus hybrids as limes—a name derived from the Persian word ‘limun’, which also gave us the word ‘lemon’. In short, the history of citrus is a taxonomic and linguistic goulash, entirely unsuited to a brief and breezy survey in a food magazine.
Ancient Chinese literature
In China and northern India, citrus fruits have been cultivated and consumed for thousands of years. The oldest surviving written reference is found in the Yugong (‘Tribute of Yu’), a classic of ancient Chinese literature, most likely written in the fifth century BC, which described how “the wild people of the islands” of the ancient province of Yangzhou carried bundles containing “small oranges and pomelos”.
The first of the citrus fruits that really spread its wings—and hence gave the genus its European name—was the citron, which was slowly carried from northern India through Persia, Arabia and Palestine (where the etrog, a variety of citron, was adopted by Jews as the centrepiece of the Feast of the Tabernacles), and on to Europe.
The Greek philosopher Theophrastus described the citron growing in Persia and Media (modern-day Iran), where it was prized as an insect repellent, anti-venom and breath-freshener: “Placed among clothes, it keeps them from being moth-eaten. It is also useful when one has drunk deadly poison; for being given in wine it upsets the stomach and brings up the poison; also for producing sweetness of breath; for, if one boils the inner part in a sauce, or squeezes it into the mouth in some other medium, and then inhales it, it makes the breath sweet.”
By the middle of the first century AD, this hardy traveller was being grown in southern Italy. There was some awareness there too of the next wave of citrus fruits to break from their east Asian motherlands, the lemon and the sour orange—their likeness appears in a couple of Roman frescos and mosaics. But it wasn’t until after the Moorish conquests of Sicily and Spain centuries later that these two flavoursome and versatile fruits, which, after emerging from India, had become fundamental to the cuisine of the Islamic world, were successfully cultivated in Europe. The etymology of the word ‘orange’ followed its journey: ‘naranga’ in Sanskrit, ‘narang’ in Persian, ‘naranj’ in Arabic, ‘arancia’ in Italian.
The emerald boughs
The landscapes of southern Italy and the Iberian peninsula were soon transformed. Abd ar-Rahman al-Itrabanishi, the 12th century Sicilian-Arabic poet, wrote of his homeland: “The oranges of the island are like blazing fire / Among the emerald boughs / And the lemons are like the pale faces of lovers / Who have spent the night crying.” The Spanish region of Andalucía became, and remains, a source of beautiful sour oranges—Seville oranges, as we still know them here.
Amalfi lemons—a lemon-citron hybrid—were first cultivated along the coast of Campania in southern Italy, probably in the 12th century. In the 17th century, bergamot, a natural cross between lemon and sour orange, emerged in Calabria, on Italy’s toe, and became a hugely valuable crop thanks to the use of its essential oil in eau de cologne.
By the 14th century, when the recipe collections of Italian, Spanish and French cooks began to be compiled, the juice of sour oranges and lemons was featuring heavily, used with the kind of liberal abandon that a modern chef would reserve for wine or vinegar. Bartolomeo Scappi, the 16th century celebrity chef, used the tartness of sour orange juice to enliven dozens of dishes: tortoise pie, grilled lamprey, caviar omelette, pike entrails, the boiled lungs of suckling calf. Even his recipe for fried eggs ends with an instruction to “serve them hot with orange juice and sugar over them”.
In England, far away from the sunny Mediterranean, citrus fruits remained an exotic luxury, reserved for the rich. In 1289, a Spanish ship docked at Portsmouth and sold 15 lemons and seven oranges to an emissary of Eleanor of Castile, wife of Edward I, who was clearly missing the flavours of her homeland. Henry VIII’s Privy Purse accounts of 1530 included references to several purchases of citrus, among them the expenses paid to a servant “for bringing orange pies to the King at Greenwich” and “to the dumb man” who supplied oranges to the royal palace at York Place.
A horrible pun
As the Tudor period came to a close, Shakespeare rolled out a horrible pun on the Seville orange in Much Ado About Nothing (he describes a count as being “civil as an orange”), but the impact of citrus on the British diet remained negligible. That changed in the Restoration period with the arrival in England of the sweet orange—a species best eaten straight from the hand, rather than squeezed over pike entrails.
Sweet oranges were probably first brought to Europe from China in the 15th century by Genoese traders, but it was the Portuguese who came to dominate their cultivation in the west. To this day, sweet oranges are still called ‘portokáli’ in Greece and ‘portogalli’ in some parts of Italy, but over here they were known as ‘China oranges’.
In London, China oranges were sold to theatregoers by young women known as ‘orange wenches’, who tended to also peddle more metaphorical forms of fruitiness. Nell Gwyn, the mistress of Charles II, famously worked as an orange seller at a Covent Garden theatre before finding fame as an actor.
Gwyn’s contemporary, Samuel Pepys, writing in March 1668, writes angrily about an embarrassing misunderstanding with an orange girl, and nervously about the possible effects of his first encounter with orange juice at the home of his cousin, the wife of a confectioner: “Here, which I never did before, I drank a glass, of a pint, I believe, at one draught, of the juice of oranges, of whose peel they make comfits; and here they drink the juice as wine, with sugar, and it is very fine drink; but, it being new, I was doubtful whether it might not do me hurt.” He was fine.
A Briton was responsible for introducing the mandarin to Europe. Widely cultivated in China and Japan, it was brought from Canton to Kew Gardens in 1805 by Sir Abraham Hume, from where it spread first to Malta, then to Sicily and continental Italy, and rapidly found favour. By 1843, Sicily was experiencing such a glut of mandarins that most of the crop ended up rotting on the trees.
The British influence on Sicilian citrus didn’t stop there. As the tendrils of the UK’s commercial and military power snaked around the world, scurvy—a disease caused by vitamin C deficiency—became a serious problem for a huge navy fuelled largely by biscuits and booze. The use of citrus fruit juices as an antiscorbutic medicine had been suggested by the English military surgeon John Woodall in 1617 and its efficacy had been clearly demonstrated in 1747 in a pioneering clinical trial run by James Lind, but it wasn’t until 1795 that the Admiralty became convinced that lemon juice was the answer, rather than the previously favoured and utterly useless malt wort.
From then on, the Royal Navy, the world’s greatest military machine, would demand a vast and constant supply of lemon juice. One of its main sources was Sicily, and this sudden injection of serious money into the island was a major factor in the rise of the Mafia, whose signature approach to ‘protection’ was first tested out on citrus farmers. The Royal Navy’s contract with Sicily lasted for around 50 years, after which the Navy turned its attentions to a cheaper and more patriotically appropriate source of citrus: limes from the British West Indies.
By then, citrus fruits had taken the Americas by storm. According to the 16th century Spanish historian Bartolomé de Las Casas, it was Christopher Colombus who got the ball rolling. On his second voyage across the Atlantic in 1493, Columbus was said to have stopped at Gomera, one of the Canary Islands, to buy “seeds of oranges, lemons, and citrons”. These were planted in Haiti, where citrus orchards were quickly established.
Over the course of the next century, Spanish and Portuguese colonialists would plant these colourful crops throughout the Caribbean, South America, Mexico, and as far north as Florida: regions that proved perfectly suited to the propagation—and continued diversification—of the genus.
It was in Barbados that the grapefruit, an accidental collision between a sweet orange and a pomelo, emerged. Known as ‘the forbidden fruit’, it was first described in 1750 by a Welshman, Reverend Griffith Hughes, in The Natural History of Barbados, and was mentioned the following year in the diary of a 19-year-old George Washington, on the only trip he ever made away from the American mainland.
Three American countries—Brazil, the USA and Mexico—are now among the world’s top five producers of citrus, together with the genus’s ancient homelands of China and India. In Europe, more than 1,000 years on from the Moorish invasions, Spain and Italy still dominate production, and will each present an impassioned argument for why their lemons and oranges are absolutely without question the world’s finest. The genus is still expanding, still diversifying, still causing headaches to the taxonomists responsible for categorising its myriad branches. Tolstoy eventually found an ending for his novel—this one just keeps on growing.