What are they?
There’s something alluring about blood oranges, isn’t there? For starters, they’re Italian, delicious in flavour, and their short and sweet availability, from August to October, means they’re damn illusive too. There’s also the theatre of cutting one open, not knowing just how blood-like their plump beads will be: anything from a faint, speckled orange to the deepest, almost blackest, of reds. Sometimes it's this appearance alone that's enough to excite us. Their blush hue results from a family of pigments called anthocyanins, which is found in many plants and fruits, but not commonly in citrus. Interestingly, the colour develops after dark, requiring cool night temperatures.
Like proper Italians, blood oranges come from a large family – one which boasts more than 15 varieties, with three the most commonly found: there’s tarocco, also known as “half-blood” as its colour is generally not so dark. It’s seedless and said to be the sweetest of all oranges. There’s also the native Spanish sanguinello, which can have a streaky appearance, and lastly morro – distinguished for its wide colour variation and for being more bitter than its relatives.
Sicilian as a blood orange
The blood orange is native to Sicily, a region where citrus fruits flourish. First introduced to the island by Arab invaders as early as the ninth century, the fruit flourishes here due to the perfect weather conditions. Indeed, rich volcanic soil, thanks to Mount Etna, intense sunlight and freezing nights make for happy citrus. The citrus family as a whole includes a wide range of fruits, from the common lemon to the more unusual bergamot (a favourite of mine), and various native varieties such as lemon aspen and finger limes.
When in Italy
Time your road trip just right and make a deliberate stop at an Autogrill – these are a group of Italian petrol stations that offer a surprisingly excellent choice of snacks and are one of the unexpected joys of travelling the not-always-picturesque motorways. After filling your tank, grab a panini, then saunter over to the bar area, order a coffee and, for an extra euro, a glass of freshly squeezed blood orange juice. I promise: it’ll be far more satisfying than a pie and Slurpee from 7-Eleven.
When the season is upon us, use them wherever you can. Start the day with a glass of freshly squeezed juice; try your hand at making a lemon curd tart by substituting blood oranges as the citrus ingredient; squeeze its juice and combine with olive oil to dress a chargrilled fish. Put simply, use them where you would oranges or any citrus. Not surprisingly, blood orange works well with many other ingredients introduced by the invaders of the time. For example, there’s the excellent combination of blood orange with saffron – which is equally delicious in sweet and savoury dishes. Also experiment with almonds, sweet spices and rice.