October 2, 2010

The orange: a well-traveled fruit

In Dutch, an orange is called a sinaasappel, literally meaning, “China’s apple,” and in Turkish, it is known as a portakal, similar to the Turkish word, Portekiz, meaning “Portugal.” This fruit, which comes in both sweet and bitter varieties, has literally traveled around the world, and for the record, it is not at all native to Florida.

Oranges originated, as the Dutch name suggests, in Southeast Asia thousands of years ago, and its English name is actually a variation of the word “naranga,” which means “orange tree” in Sanskrit. Eventually, the fruit, along with its name, made its way to the Middle East, where in Persian it was known as narang, and in Arabic, it became naranj. Around the first century B.C., the Romans, who traded extensively with China, likely introduced oranges to Europe and planted them in their territories in North Africa. With the decline of the Roman Empire, the fruits disappeared almost entirely from the continent, and weren’t introduced again until the 8th or 9th century when the Moors brought them to Spain. Centuries later, during the early Middle Ages, the Crusades prompted increased trade with the Middle East, and once again promoted the export of oranges to Europe, specifically to the Italian city states. Still, however, the orange remained generally unpopular throughout the continent.

It might be useful to note that the first oranges consumed in Europe were actually bitter oranges, which, although still cultivated today, are most often used for essential oils rather than for eating. It wasn’t until the early 16th century, when the Portuguese returned from China with sweet oranges, that they became a sought-after commodity.

After the Ottoman Empire took control of Constantinople in 1453, the existing trade routes between Europe and Asia were more or less cut off, forcing Europeans to look for new ways to reach the Orient. The Portuguese were among the first to find passages to China and India, and were likely the first to bring sweet oranges back to Europe from where they were carried across the Atlantic for planting in the Americas. This is why in many languages (including Turkish) the word for orange resembles the word for Portugal. In some languages, there are even separate names for bitter and sweet oranges, the name for the bitter variety being a version of the original Sanskrit, and the sweet variety reflecting the Portuguese influence on the orange trade. In Persian, for example, the bitter orange is called narang, and the sweet orange is known as porteghal, while in modern Greek, the terms are nerantzi and portokali.

So how did we get to “orange” from “naranga?” It almost certainly came from the French, who originally called the fruit orenge (possibly norenge), similar to the Italian, arancia, and the Spanish, naranja. It’s been suggested that the Italians and French dropped the initial “n” as a result of a process called rebracketing (meaning that “une norenge” might have been interpreted as “une orenge”). It’s also been suggested that the French “orenge” might have something to do with the French word, “or,” meaning gold.

My favorite way to enjoy the flavor of an orange is when it’s paired with chocolate. I like just about any fruit when it’s paired with chocolate. I suggest an orange and chocolate tart. Mine is based on a recipe for a rich Chocolate Glazed Chocolate Tart. I infused orange into the chocolate by peeling one whole orange with a vegetable peeler, throwing the large strips of zest into the cream, and simmering it for about five minutes before straining the cream and combining it with the remaining tart ingredients. I also substituted the chocolate grahams with vanilla wafer cookies, and as a garnish, topped the dessert with candied orange strips.


  1. hey, pass me a chinese apple, please! :)