That Old Orange Magic

I’m conflicted. My heart — and the heart of so many Greeks and people who love this country — is breaking. Not just cracking in two but splintering like the plate glass windows in Athens when they were struck on the night of February 12th by a sledge hammer or a chunk of flying marble.

I don’t live in central Athens, I’ve never even smelled tear gas, and I try not to watch more than 20 minutes of news a day. I don’t want to be dragged down by scenes of violence and burning buildings, or by politicians pointing the finger at everyone but themselves,

Call me an ostrich, or even a cock-eyed optimist, but I find the best way to cope with this bleak midwinter crisis is to go for a walk in the park near our home.

The Alsos Syngrou (or Wood) is enormous and quite wild in parts. If you ignore the distant hum of traffic, it’s easy to pretend you’re hiking through uncharted territory.

Moreover, getting there is half the fun. Like so many districts of Athens, my streets are lined with bitter orange trees, nerantzies in Greek. In spring, their scent rises above the stink of exhaust. And now their fruit gleams warmly through shiny green leaves, brightening even the darkest days.

If you could eat them raw, the boughs would be stripped. But for marmalade fans, they’re a cook’s bonanza. I always pick them from trees on a quiet street or dead end to get the best quality, unpolluted nerantzia. I’m very selective, only a few from each tree, for you don’t need more than a dozen to make 4 jars.

I recently discovered something more exotic. A kumquat tree. Growing right next to the sidewalk. I only discovered it a month ago and I’ve been quite discreet about pillaging it. But all that ripe fruit is quite a provocation. Lately though, the owner has been gardening. Every time I pass by, he’s there. The little golden footballs hang untouched, leaving me to imagine the crunch of their skin as I bite into one, their sharp, just sweet enough taste, their smooth pips. And how different they are from that garish liqueur sold in tourist shops in Corfu.

They start me musing on the truly incredible citrus family. Never mind the whole orange and lemon family — the sweet oval lemons of Amalfi that you can eat without puckering, the blood oranges that make tangy vermilion juice (I’ve heard that in California they call them by another name — blood being too graphic a word).

What about grapefruit? Lucky me, I haven’t had to buy one this winter. Just when our own tree ran out, a friend delivered a giant canvas shopping bagful, almost too heavy to carry. I saved the peel and candied it. The way I used to do with our “frappa” tree in Maroussi. That’s an inedible grapefruit lookalike, with a thick peel good only for making syrupy Greek spoon sweets or crystallizing in strips.

Now it’s also the bergamot season — pergamonto in Greek. They resemble lemons, but the peel is a deeper, almost sunflower yellow. Last year, when I was making limoncello, I made a batch of bergamo-cello, too, but no one liked it. Another friend who was given a basket of them has been squeezing the juice and putting sliced bergamots over baked fish for a new taste treat that sounds more successful.

Brightening up the market yesterday, glistening through the rain, were still more citrus, heaps of tangerines and clementines. In our house, preference is divided. I love the distinctive sharpness of tangerines and couldn’t care less about the pips, while my husband, a self-confessed lazy eater, sticks to the less interesting but pipless clementines.

Rain poured down on yesterday’s street market, for at least the fifth Wednesday in a row (I’m also counting snow days). But the thought of the condensed sunlight in those mounds of fruit drew me out of my comfort zone.

They cheered and sobered me at the same time. For, with oranges at only 80 cents a kilo, they seemed a bargain. And yet, some people can’t even afford that.

As one vendor said, “We always used to get beggars coming by and asking for 50 cents. Now they’re asking for food. What are we coming to?”

RECIPE

Tangerine Peel Truffles

But I want to leave you with a sweet taste. Another marvelous feature of citrus fruit is that, as with the pig, nothing need be wasted. Here are some simply delicious “truffles” made of tangerine peel.

Peel from 30 unblemished tangerines

450 grams (1lb) sugar

450 grams (1 lb) almonds, blanched and ground in food processor

Boil the tangerine peels in lots of water to get rid of their bitterness until they are soft. Drain. Leave them to dry overnight wrapped in a big dish towel.

The next day crumble the peel between your fingers until you have a “puree” of tangerine peel. Put the peel and the sugar in a saucepan and boil, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the sugar turns to syrup. Be careful not to let it burn. Remove the pan from the burner and stir in the ground almonds and mix thoroughly.

When cool, pinch off bits of the mixture and roll it into little balls and arrange them on a pretty platter.

If you are not going to use them within the next day or two, lay them between sheets of wax paper and store them in the freezer. Makes about 60 pieces.

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