With zest

Categories: Features, Reflections and opinions

Sybil Kapoor offers her take on the vibrant, colourful, members of the citrus genus

My kitchen is filled with a wonderful aroma. A long, pale green etrog, an enormous lumpy, yellow citron and some green, rough-skinned bergamot oranges are releasing sweet notes of jasmine, orange flowers and lemon leaves. It makes me long for the clear blue skies and ocean breezes of southern Italy.

Citrus fruits, in case you hadn’t noticed, are in. Not just in season, which they are of course, but ‘in’ in the sense that citrus fruit is currently enjoying a renaissance in Britain. Such fashions often start with chefs—perhaps they’ve eaten a dish flavoured with bergamot elsewhere, or heard of another chef importing sudachi fruit from France. Word soon spreads, sources are found, and unusual citrus fruits begin to appear on stylish restaurant menus.

Gradually, other restaurant suppliers and market stalls, such as Turnips in Borough Market, begin to sell the likes of etrogs and finger limes. Slowly but surely, a fruit seeps into the public consciousness and before you know it, everyone is seasoning their scallops with sudachi juice, just as they once took up limes and pink grapefruit.

Few cooks can resist trying new ingredients, but it takes a little knowledge to adopt the best approach for unfamiliar citrus fruits. Take the etrog. It belongs to the citron family and like all citrons, it has a highly aromatic zest, beneath which lies a thick white layer of pith surrounding a small heart of dry flesh.

Delicate winter salads
Citron itself looks like a large, knobbly grapefruit and has a more lemony aroma compared to the jasmine scent of the diamond-shaped etrog. But all citrus can be treated in a similar way: they all make incredible candied peel and can all be finely sliced and mixed into delicate winter salads of cucumber and fennel, drizzled with olive oil. I’ve also found intriguing references to citrons being turned into jams and pickles in the Middle East and Indian subcontinent.

It’s easy to think of lemons and oranges as year-round fruits but in reality, they come and go depending on variety and where they are grown. This gives us the added pleasure of anticipation. The arrival of the first bitter-sour Seville oranges in mid-January cheers many a British cook as they set to making marmalade, orange curd, orange vinaigrettes and marinades for their brief six-week season.

Sicilian blood oranges (often marketed as blush) are also much anticipated in January. Their beautiful colour and sweet flavour bring a sparkle to winter salads, both sweet and savoury. I can never resist mixing them with watercress, red onion, olives and feta. Their season can stretch into March, depending on where they’re grown and many a cook has turned them into a Campari sorbet or rhubarb compote to mark the first early days of spring.

Sweet and fragrant
Citrus fruits grow in sub-tropical regions as diverse as the Mediterranean, Japan, China, Australia, Florida, Central and South America. They belong to a large family that traces its ancestry back to four original citrus fruits: the citron, mandarin, pomelo and papeda. I’ve already mentioned the citron family, but you may not be familiar with the papeda subgenus, which is thought to be among the most primitive. It includes yuzu, kaffir lime and sudachi. The mandarin is smaller than an orange and has intensely-flavoured, sweet flesh and thin, very bitter pith. The pomelo, meanwhile, looks like a large grapefruit and is sometimes called a shaddock. Its pale yellow flesh tastes sweet and fragrant—especially good for breakfast—and the white pith can be candied.

Over time, citrus fruits have been crossed and re-crossed to create new hybrids, such as the grapefruit and the clementine. The former is thought to be a hybrid between a pomelo and a sweet orange, first described in Barbados in 1750, while the latter may be a hybrid of a tangerine and a sweet orange from North Africa. Oranges are believed to be hybrids of pomelo and mandarin.

Happily, many of these fruits are in prime condition from November through to March or April. Take the ugli fruit, which tastes similar to a pomelo, but is more fragrant in a grapefruit sort of a way. They make fabulous winter salads, mixed with chicory and red onion and seasoned with chilli, coriander or mint—adding a touch of exoticism in the dark days of winter. Pomelo or grapefruit can be used in the same way. You can even combine all three in a pretty citrus salad for pudding or for breakfast. Whatever citrus fruit you choose, select fruit that feels heavy for its size. Curiously, colour does not indicate ripeness. A green spotted lemon or clementine can still be ripe.

A light zing
Experiment with your citrus zest. A fine paring will add a light zing to rich dishes, whether it is orange zest in a beef stew or grated lemon zest in a spinach pasta. Bergamot zest can be infused into syrup, ice creams or even dried and ground for meringues, while bitter Seville orange zest is worth drying to flavour spicy stir fries. Remember to wash the fruit first.

If you are stuck for ideas, go back to how you might use a lemon, lime or sweet orange and adapt the recipe to your chosen citrus fruit. Grapefruit syllabub, for example, tastes amazing. You’ll find it a fascinating process.