Knobbly and slightly misshapen, Seville oranges are the character actors of the citrus world – all substance underneath a craggy exterior. What they lack in smooth perfection is more than made up for in tongue-tingling acidity and delicate floral notes. And their virtues are only enhanced by their relative scarcity – while they’re commonly used to make marmalades, the oranges themselves are available for a very short time during deepest winter.
Despite its limited use today, the Seville orange was “the only popular orange in Europe for centuries,” says the food writer Elizabeth Baird, who is helping organize Mad for Marmalade, Crazy for Citron, a celebration of “all things citrus” at Fort York in Toronto on Feb. 23. Originating in Asia, sour or bitter oranges travelled to Africa and the Mediterranean about 1,000 years ago. They were then cultivated in Seville, Spain in the 12th century and remained au courant until crowd-pleasing sweet oranges become widely available in Europe around the 16th century.
Their mouth-puckering tang, though, is what makes Sevilles so special among chefs in the know. In the early 19th century, Marie-Antoine Carême, the granddaddy of celebrity cooks, chose Sevilles to define his duck with sauce bigarade, the dish that became today’s duck à l’orange. Contemporary mixologists are also big fans. (According to Larousse Gastronomique, the esteemed food encyclopedia, Seville peel is what’s used in liqueurs such as Curaçao, Cointreau and Grand Marnier.)
Robin Goodfellow, who runs the bar at Ursa restaurant in Toronto, recently zested a case of Sevilles for a house-made orange tincture that forms the base of his popular Shaw cocktail. “Instead of using an ordinary navel orange, which is pretty sweet but also pretty flat, I like these,” he enthuses. “There are a lot of aromatics in the zest. It’s a musty, earthy flavour.”
For marmalade lovers, nothing really compares. That’s why customers of Pete’s, the famed Nova Scotia grocer, begin harassing produce director Dwayne Buttler months before Sevilles arrive. “They’ll call in November, asking us to put some away for them, even though they don’t arrive until January,” he says of his supply, which comes from Arizona.
“When you make marmalade, you need lots of sugar to ensure it sets,” Baird says. “This orange is so tart that it’s one of the only fruits that allows you to balance sweet and sour.”
Considering this rare quality and their brief window of availability, horde as many Sevilles as you can if you happen upon them at your greengrocer. And don’t stop at marmalade when contemplating use. Among other things, squeeze their juice for a marinade, candy their peels into sweet submission and experiment with exquisite cocktails. But whatever you do, hurry. Seville season is a flash of brilliant, zesty orange and then it’s gone.