Every December, in the foothills of Mount Etna in Sicily, there is a group of farmers relishing the cold nights. While a sharp chill would alarm most fruit growers, concerned for the survival of their tender fruit, it’s a different story for growers of blood oranges. Along with the incredibly fertile soil and altitude of this volcanic region, the low temperatures bring out the crimson bloom in their oranges that makes them such a prized crop.
The three varieties of blood orange that we use (Moro, Tarocco and Sanguinello) all have similar vibrant coloured flesh and perhaps a hint of blush on the skin, along with the sweet juiciness that makes then so popular. They are of course wonderful enjoyed as they are, but their balance of sweetness and acidity also brings other culinary uses. Try tossing whole segments with thinly sliced fresh fennel and good extra virgin olive oil plus a twist of seasoning for a refreshing winter salad. We’ve also got a beautiful lemon and orange tart recipe by Jane Baxter in our Everyday and Sunday cook book, that works particularly well with blood oranges. If you are celebrating anything, mixing a third of blood orange juice with two thirds of prosecco creates a seasonal and memorable cocktail too.
Riverford blood oranges come from a co-operative of organic farms in this same special region of Italy. Out of the 50 members who produce crops such as tomatoes and a variety of vegetables, 15 grow blood oranges, and they are all small scale family businesses. This season has been what they call a ‘medium’ year, with neither an especially bad or especially good harvest. However last summer brought less rain than usual so the fruits are a little smaller than the farmers would have liked (but don’t worry, you’ll just get more of them if you’ve placed an order). Even now the farmers aren’t out of the woods; the irony is that too much rain during the harvesting season means they cannot bring the crop in. The orange trees take on so much of the water that the fruits become spongy and this shortens their shelf life. But when the conditions are right they get the fruit in and on its way to you to brighten the short winter days. And given that they have up to three times the amount of Vitamin C as most standard oranges, it’s good timing for fending off those February colds!