Valencia’s orange season has arrived! What is the difference between Spain’s Valencian oranges and ‘Valencia oranges’ in the US?
So back home, when I mention Valencia, probably the first thing people say to me is, ‘oranges!’ Yes, Valencia is the land of oranges (naranjas), and right now (late December through early February) oranges are in season. Which means that I get to enjoy, near daily, the world’s most delicious fresh-squeezed orange juice with my breakfast, and we’ve been eating fresh oranges in a variety of forms for dessert. Thus, I’m using this very iconic Valencian product to inaugurate my series on ‘eating in season,’ a practice that is very Spanish and yet somehow lost to time and globalisation in the United States but waiting for a good comeback.
Valencia’s oranges are a winter fruit
It’s funny. The idea that oranges are a seasonal fruit, and much less a winter fruit is probably extinct now in the States. If anything, people probably hit the highly-processed Florida orange juice even heavier in the spring and summer (bikini diet season). And, indeed, as I will explain in a moment, it is because of the Valencian orange that many of you will eat table fruit oranges more in the summer, too. Yet not long ago, or not long ago by historians’ standards, as in just over a century ago, an orange in many parts of the US was a special treat associated with the holiday season.
In my family, for example, we are very proud of a very old diary we have that was written by my grandfather’s grandfather (my great, great, great grandfather? Very great, needless to say). He lived a fascinating life, having grown up partly in Japan where his father went as a missionary just after the country (re)opened to the West in the 1870’s. But there is a lovely passage that he wrote as a boy growing up in Indiana, where he mentions his excitement at getting a fresh orange around Christmas time. I believe it was even a common gift or stocking filler back in the day. (Imagine! Oranges special enough to be a gift.) I think of it every time the first batch of this season’s local oranges appear in supermarkets mid December.
My Spanish family is so Valencian that we don’t even had to buy oranges sometimes. Once, organic oranges were gifted to my father-in-law from a producer, who also got a box from a friend of his that has a family orchard, plus he got a third box from his employer as a Christmas gift!
Valencia’s oranges versus Valencian oranges
So now I’m going to follow that with a big letdown for all you Hispanophile Americans. When you find ‘Valencian oranges’ in the States, chances are they are not from Spain, much less Valencia. Thus the title ‘Valencia orange’, and not ‘Valencian’ for this post. This is because the Valencian oranges you find in your supermarket are named for the variety of orange and not the location where they were cultivated.
Most oranges in the States come from California (though increasingly shifting southward to Mexico), Florida (which specialises more in the thin-skinned juicing oranges), or Brazil. Spanish-grown oranges largely get marketed only within Europe. This Valencian variety, according to my very cursory investigations, was a hybrid first developed in southern California in the late 19th century, and was prized because it ripened off-season, so to speak, which is to say it was ready to be eaten later, in the summer, instead of in the winter and spring. Many a southern California town and region was marked by this discovery, such as Valencia, California (just outside of Los Angeles) and ‘Orange County’ (aka The OC).
But don’t be too disappointed. This variety of orange probably does have its roots in the Iberian peninsula, since it was found to be very similar to oranges grown in Portugal, and likely originally from the Valencia region. Also, in recent years there are a lot of clemetines (clementinas) in the US arriving from Spain (usually around December), which most certainly would be coming from the Valencian region.
Tracing the path of Valencia’s oranges
Okay, so that brief American history of agriculture detour aside, Valencia is a major orange obsessed producing region. (Though like California-Mexico, much of the production in Spain is shifting south to Morocco.) The streets are literally paved with gold orange trees. (Guiri alert!: Don’t be a guiri and try to pick this fruit. The orange trees that line the streets have decorative oranges, which are nearly inedible.)
You can find oranges in the tile art (azulejos) iconography all throughout the city. And after the silk trade’s decline, following its height in the 15th and 16th centuries, the citrus industry was probably one of the major backbone industries of the region that maintained Valencia’s importance economically as a port city, especially around the turn of the 20th century when the marketing of such fresh fruit boomed in the US and Europe (following advances in transportation and preservation, which overcame the perishability challenges of before). And, again, I’m eternally grateful to the ill-conceived association Americans have between oranges and Valencia, since it provides me a starting point when talking about my otherwise neglected adopted Spanish city.
Oranges adorn Valencia’s main train station, Estación del Norte, which is a must-visit for tourists. There are also oranges all over the walls of Valencia’s Mercat Central, another modern-style building whose fruit stands will most certainly carry oranges
There are orange trees (naranjos, with an ‘o’ for the tree, as opposed to ending in an ‘a’ for the fruit), all over the city, and especially along the avenues. Lovely, except in February when there are also mushed oranges all over the ground.
Orange, how do I love thee?
Let me count the ways. If you ever try a fresh Valencia orange in season here, you’ll understand the local pride, and how it is that oranges and orange juice find their way into the many novel local dishes and drinks here. First, I’m going to let you all in on a big local secret: agua de Valencia.
Remember when I wrote that Valencians regularly say that the water in Valencia isn’t good for anything except making paella? Well maybe that’s why ‘agua de Valencia‘ here isn’t water. It’s a local cocktail which loosely resembles a mimosa, made of orange juice, cava, and a couple of liquors. (This cocktail is probably the exception to the rule that there are very, very few local cocktails in Spain. Very, very few. Spain, in general, does not have a cocktail culture.) It was invented in the late 1950s by Constante Gil at the Bar Café Madrid, what was in its day a lively and culturally important hub in the old center of Valencia. These days, you are more likely to see people here who are out for a drink sharing a pitcher (jarra) of agua de Valencia than of sangría, and I highly recommend you order some when you visit.
Valencians, however, are more likely to be enjoying the season of fresh oranges in more mundane ways. My wife and I got the world’s best house-warming gift from her parents when we moved into our current place: an electric juicer. I think it’s a must-have kitchen utility here in Valencia in the winter, facilitating that daily orange juice with breakfast. But you can also have oranges for dessert. My mother-in-law cuts up oranges and serves them with honey on top (and sometimes pollen sprinkled over it), which makes for a delicious, simple and healthy dessert. Or you can cover it with melted chocolate, like in this fancier and mouth-watering dessert shown below, and whose recipe you can find here.
So there you have it. Oranges. One more reason why life in Valencia is sweet!