Friday, May 04, 2007

Pondering Citrus:


pondering citrus, originally uploaded by lorrainemd.

We drink our orange juice in the morning without a second thought, squeeze lemon to a salad dressing, and grate citrus rind to flavour cakes and breads; We clean our homes with products that usually contain a large amount of citrus essential oils, and enjoy the cheerful freshness of their scent in many colognes and perfumes. But do we ever stop to ask ourselves where all this citrus fruit actually come from?

The citrus are a genus of many different small (5-15 meter tall) evergreen fruit trees, from the family of Rutaceae (the ruh plant is from the same family too, by the way) and one of the most important cultivated trees in the world. The thick peel protects the juicy pulp and creates a perfect container that can endure travels across the planet. Citrus has become such a staple in so man cuisines – can you ever imagine Mexican green salsa without the lime? A Greek salad without lemon juice & olive oil dressing? A Grand Marnier liquor without the orange essence? Norwegian rye bread without the orange rind? Or any bar that respects itself that is NOT serving a Harvey Wallbanger, Tequilla Sunrise or a Screwdriver? This just shows you how important a staple citrus has become around the world.

Although most of the citrus fruit of the world is exported from Spain, Brazil and some parts of the USA (Florida and California), the origins of the citrus trees are most likely from South-East Asia. The first citrus seeds are believed to have been brought from Asia to Europe and North Africa by Alexander the Great. This is believed to be the citron - genus Citrus medica L. , which was recorded by Theophrastus, in 350 BC.
It is interesting to note that the very same citron fruit, Etrog in Hebrew, was mentioned in the bible as one of the 4 species that are used as symbols in the Jewish holiday of Sukkot (along with a young palm leaf, myrtle and willow branches), which may controversially suggest a different date of writing the bible.

There are many archeological references that show that citrus have become a part of the Meditteranean cultures (the Greeks and than the Romans) for a very long time - i.e. in the remains of Pompei, a ceramic tile showing citrus was found.

Further in history, the citrus seeds were spread by the religious and colonial invaders: the Christians and tha the Muslims spread citrus to the areas of the world that had adequate conditions for the cultivation of citrus – Spain, Portugal, Southern France, Israel, and later on to Africa as well. Columbus brought with him citrus seeds to America, and so did the Portuguese who spread the citrus even further into South America, and from than on colonialism spread it to innumerous islands under their control.

Citrus fruit need conditions of a humid and sunny climate, a colder winter and sufficient supply of water (rain or regular watering). The fruit needs the cold months in order to develop the colour and turn from green to yellow or orange shades. Many of the citrus fruit are picked when the peel is still green and develop their colour after being stored in refrigeration during shipping and prior to consumption. The citrus trees do not usually tolerate cold and freezing tempreratures, and those who do survive these conditions will not produce high quality fruit. The citrus industry in the US started to shift from Florida to California after the freezes in the gulf states in the 1960s destroyed many of the orchards in Florida.

Citrus trees readily lend themselves to hybridization by grafting to achieve the desirable performance of the particular fruit (i.e.: flavour, size, colour, juiciness, etc.) and enhance the durability and health of the tree itself (i.e.: resilience against disease an dinsects and hardiness in colder weather conditions).

Citrus trees are grown extensively in warmer countries around the world, and in particular in the Mediterranean Basin (i.e.: Spain, Portugal, Israel), South America (Brazil is one of the main exporters of orange juice, and Mexico is one of the main growers of lime), the USA (mostly California, Florida and Texas), South Africa and Australia.

There are many hybrids of citrus. Their fruit vary in size, shape, skin colour, skin thickness, and flavour. Here is a list of some of the most important from perfume and culinary perspectives and with which I am familiar with:
Bergamot orange
Bitter orange (Seville orange)
Blood Orange
Citron (Citrus Medica)
Grapefruit (Citrus Paradisi)
Kaffir Lime
Key Lime
Mandarin Orange
Orange (Sweet) – Citrus Sinensis
Tangerine (Citrus Reticulata)


The citrus fruit are made of an outer skin, containing myriads of glands that are full of essential oils and is either green, yellow, or orange, sometimes with a bit or red (as in pink grapefruit and blood orange). The inner peel is white and spongy and is often bitter in flavour. The inner pulp is made of tiny sackets of juice, contained within membrane-covered segments. Each segment often has seeds in the centre. The pulp of the citrus fruit varies in flavour and in juiciness between the different fruit (Pomelo and citron are extremely dry while most oranges and tangerines are very juicy). The flavour ranges form sour and/or bitter to sweet.

The sweet citrus fruit are usually eaten fresh (peeled, scooped) or squeezed into juice. The more tart or tangy are often used as an additional to cooking, condiments, salad dressing, baking, etc.

The unique flavour of citrus peels makes them a popular additive as a spice in many baked goods and sweets. An alcoholic tincture of the oil (along with glycerin as a stabilizer and usually some food colouring) are often sold in lemon and orange flavour (Respectively yellow and orange in colour). The rind of oranges, lemons and limes is often grated to create a fresh, exotic effect in sweets, cakes, cookies and breads, or even in rice pillafs. Citrus leaves can be used in stews, soups and curry dishes – and the particularly infamous for that are the Kaffir lime leaves, often used in Thai curries and soups. The Thai curry paste recipes often call for lime or lemon rind as well.

Candied citrus peel is made by rinsing out the bitterness of the peels in boiling water, than simmering it in sugar syrup. The finest candied citrus is made of citron and pomelo, from the spongy white peel, which is particularly thick in these two fruits and has a unique aroma of its own (none of the outer peel is used as it is way too bitter). Citrus peels are also made into marmalades and lemon juice is often added to jams for its high pectin content (to achieve a jelly-like consistency in the jam). Lemon juice is also drizzled over cut fruit and fruit salads to avoid browning (due to its acidic, anti-oxidant properties).

Lemon juice can help relieve insect bites.
The vitamin C in citrus fruit helps to prevent Scurvy. The explorers used to carry with them lemons in their ships to prevent that unpleasant disease (lack of vitamin C prevents the body from producing collagen, a protein that accounts for a high percentage of the mucous membranes of the body connecting the different parts - which in this disease results in the body literally falling apart – gradually, of course). So eat your oranges every day keep the doctors away ☺

The citrus essential oils are renowned for their anti-bacterial and antiseptic actions. They are used in cleaning agents and soaps to blast off bacteria, and are also used in aromatherapy practices to strengthen the immune system. A little of citrus oil in a burner or a light-bulb ring during the winter times may help you to keep colds away.

In the early days of perfumery, when the new use for alcohol was discovered, citrus peels, along with astringent herbs, were tinctured into what was called than “Aqua Mirabillis” AKA Miracle Water – a “two-in-one” product: both a cure-it-all beverage/medicine (you got drunk, so you forgot you were sick LOL!) as well a toiletry (and a substitute for bathing, which was considered unsafe back than). One of the most famous of all these Aqua Mirabillis is Muhllens Kolnish Wasser 4711 – a phenomenon that lasted more than 215 years and is about to become extinct, as mentioned earlier on this blog.

Cosmetic and Beauty Uses of Citrus
Lemon juice can be used as a skin tonic. It may burn invisible cuts but it will leave your skin smooth and soft. You can also use the peel of a half lemon that was already squeeze and rub it on your elbows to treat dry, chapped “elephant skin” on your elbows.

Many citrus oils are beneficial for treating acne and oily skin, particularly lemon and neroli hydrosol (orange flower water).

Grapefruit is an excellent oil for treating cellulites when applied to the skin in a bath or a massage or in a body lotion (and also helps to curb the appetite).

* Please note: When using essential oils of citrus on your skin, be sure to not get exposed to the sun afterwards: most citrus oils contain high contents of feranocoumarins, a type of molecule that causes the skin to discolour and/or burn when exposed to the sun. The oils that are particularly known for that are bergamot and lime (in which the feranocoumarins are often removed, partially). In any case, use a very low dilution, and be sure to consult a reliable aromatherapy book on safety considerations and suggested dilution levels.

Importance of Citrus in Perfumery
The importance of citrus essential oils in perfumery is tremendous: the essential oils from the citrus peels are usually obtained by expression (rather than distillation, which would destroy the delicate and volatile oils and oxidize them before their time). That means that the peels are pressed to express the essential oils stored in their glands. These citrus oils (from the peels of the fruit) are often (but not always) a by-product of the juice industry.

These are all top notes, which evaporate very fast. The citrus peel essential oils contain high levels of naturally-occuring aldehydes – highly diffusive molecules that give the perfume a sparkling, effervescent, sweet, refreshing and invigorating aroma, which invites the wearer to a pleasurable olfactory adventure. The citrus top notes (from the peels of the various citrus fruit) has played a significant role in the citrus cologne types fragrances, naturally, but also not any less importance in adding a sweetness and bright contrast to the heaviness of oriental, ambery, resinous, spicy and incensey compositions, and the sparkling harmony of chypre compositions. Not to mention its appearance in too many floral perfumes than we can ever count, fougeres, and practically almost every single fragrance in the world has at least some citrus component to it.

Another important contribution of the citrus trees is their leaves and twigs, often extracted for the creation of a petitgrain oil. The most common petitgrain oil is that of the bergamot tree. However, on lesser scales, other petitgrains are also produced, which have a unique aroma: petitgrain lemon, petitgrain cedrat (citron) and petitgrain combarva (kaffir lime). The petitgrain oils all have a distinctive citrus aroma, reminiscent of the fruit, yet at the same time also possess a certain leafy greenness. Another important thing to know about the petitgrain oils is that they have a more lingering scent – they are usually heart to top notes, and are slower to evaporate than the citrus peel oils. The petitgrain oils are often used in green compositions and in many cologne type fragrances.

Last but not least – the flowers!
Some of you may be familiar with orange flower water or neroli essential oil. These are obtained from the flower of one particular variety of citrus: citrus aurantium – the bitter orange. This is similar to bergamot, only has orange coloured fruit. From these tiny qhite flowers that bloom in the spring, a few precious essences are procured: Neroli oil, through steam distillation; orange flower water (a by product of the neroli production, which is used for cosmetics and also has culinary uses); orange flower absolute by solvent extraction of the flowers; and orange flower water absolute – by alcohol washing of the orange flower water. These essences are used in high class perfumery, mostly in floral, oriental and of course – in citrus colognes. The aroma of these essences is unique in that it is both indolic and fresh, both floral and citrusy.

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