Inside the many varieties of the orange

A rose is a rose but an orange isn’t always just an orange.

Mandarin, Minneola, tangerine, blood orange, Washington navel, Sumo citrus, tangelo, Clementine, Cara Cara, Valencia, bitter (or Seville) orange, Satsuma — each differs, one from the other, but each called, simply, “an orange.”

It’s merely the general color of the skin that makes the word, no question. The differences, by and large, lie under that skin.

We don’t see many bitter oranges hereabouts, though Latin grocers will offer their sort for use in Central and South American cooking. Seville oranges make marmalade, and we declared our independence from that jam some time ago.

The bitter orange does have a beautiful name in the Latin language, however: Citrus aurantium, from “aurum,” or “gold” in Latin. In time, “aurantium” became “arancia,” the word for the orange in Italian, and “orange” in both French and English.

Returning from India in 1498, the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama brought back to the West the then-unknown sweet orange, the “Chinese” orange (Citrus sinensis) which, of course, became wildly popular as, for example, the navel or the Valencia orange in both Europe and the Americas. In the Greek language to this day, the word for the orange is “portokáli,” or “a good thing from Portugal.” That is a way cool word.

A third Latin name for a family of oranges tells another interesting story. Citrus reticulata includes oranges such as the mandarin, tangerine or Clementine. These are small, generally quite sweet (which is to say, low in countervailing acidity), quite juicy, virtually seedless and noticeably segmented. They also peel very easily, a function of the “net” (“rete,” in Latin, hence reticulated) that disconnects their peel from their flesh.

More interesting short stories about oranges: In the 1840s, the Indian consul in New Orleans planted the first mandarin orange trees in the United States in his backyard. The ubiquitous navel orange is also known as the Bahia, from the Brazilian city of its origin, or as the Washington navel to designate Washington, D.C., the city (and its Department of Agriculture) that received cuttings of the then-very strange Bahia in 1870.

The navel is a mutant: seedless, with a small secondary fruit at one end that never matures but does form the fruit’s belly-button-ish “navel.” (Also, look inside; you often will see an attempt at a second orange at that end.) All navel oranges, because they are seedless, come from trees that are themselves grafts off the first Bahia tree.

The clementine is a cross between the mandarin (not surprisingly named, a small orange brought to England from China in 1803) and the larger sweet orange. They obtain their name from a monk named Marie-Clément who hybridized them in Algeria around 1900. They’re not named after the song, nor is the song named after them.

Tangerine is simply an alternate nickname for (but also a hybrid of) the mandarin, given to it by North Americans who assumed that the mandarin, when introduced here in the late 1800s, came from Tangier, Morocco.

The sweet, berry-like Cara Cara oranges obtain their name from the Cara Cara Hacienda of Venezuela, where they were discovered growing in 1976. They were a spontaneous cross-pollination between two common navel orange trees there. Unlike blood oranges, which obtain their red color from plant anthocyanins (that also color red wine grapes, for example), Cara Cara flesh is colored from lycopene, a carotenoid (as in the carrot or pink and ruby grapefruit).

Finally, in the United States, an orange is considered “seedless” if it has from zero up to six seeds. Wordplay and alternate facts, it appears, for oranges too.

Orange-scented Cream

From Samin Nosrat, “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” (Simon & Schuster); makes about 2 cups. Nosrat suggests that the uses of scented cream are many, among which is as a “quick frosting.” “Whip scented cream just past soft peaks to stiff, and spread it all over a baked, cooled cake,” she says.


  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon finely grated orange or mandarin zest
  • 1 tablespoon Grand Marnier liqueur, if desired


Chill a large, deep metal bowl (or the bowl of your standing mixer) and a whisk (or the whisk attachment) in the freezer for at least 20 minutes before you begin.

Prepare the cream as follows with the orange flavoring(s), then add the sugar. Nosrat writes these directions: “I prefer to whip cream by hand because it gives me more control, so I am less likely to overwhip it and end up with butter. If you’d like to use a mixer, run it at low speed. Whisk until the first soft peaks appear.

“If using a machine, switch to a handheld whisk and continue to whisk until all the liquid cream has been incorporated and the texture of the cream is uniformly soft and billowy. Taste and adjust sweetness and flavoring as desired.”

Keep chilled until serving.

Cover and refrigerate leftovers for up to 2 days. Use a whisk to bring deflated cream back to soft peaks as needed.

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