Skip to main content

The Secret Story of the Common Orange: History, Types and Recipes

  • Author:
  • Updated date:
Venetian-style caramel oranges

Venetian-style caramel oranges

The orange is so readily and cheaply available all year round that it has been relegated to being commonplace. Yet behind this commonness lies a rich and exotic history.

Oranges originated in China, as reflected in the botanical name for the sweet orange Citrus sinensis, from which the familiar Valencia and navel oranges are descended.

The orange made its first appearance in literature in Yu Kung, a book written around 500 BC about events under Emperor Ta Yun, who reigned from 2205–2197 BC.


Bitter Oranges: Seville and More

The first orange to spread beyond China was the bitter orange, Citrus aurantium, also known as the coolie or Canton orange. (Some texts suggest it originally came from India and was introduced into China around 2200 BC.) It made an initial brief appearance in Europe around the 1st century AD with the spread of the Roman Empire to Central Asia. However, almost all the Roman orangeries were destroyed with the fall of the Roman Empire, except for some in Sicily and North Africa.

The bitter orange was (re)introduced into Africa, Spain, the south of France and Sicily by the Arabs from the 7th to 10th centuries AD, during Arab domination of the region. The Seville orange, prized in marmalade making, is descended from the bitter orange.

There are a number of variants of the bitter orange. Bouquetiers are used for the production of the oil of neroli, an essential oil used in the perfume industry and in aromatherapy. The name 'neroli' reflects the fact that this fragrance was first popularised by Anne Marie Orsini, the princess of Nerola in Italy.

The highly decorative myrtle-leaf orange known as Chinotto (Citrus myrtifolia) was favoured for making of the exquisite whole glacé (candied) fruits that the French—in particular the old city of Apt in Provence—and Italians are renowned for. However, this golf-ball-sized orange has since been supplanted by the small seedless Clementine in this industry. Chinotto makes fabulous marmalade, but you'll have to be very patient as this variety is extremely slow-growing.


The Sweet Orange

The sweet orange did not arrive in Europe until the 15th century. On his voyage around the Cape of Good Hope in 1498, Vasco da Gama discovered the sweet orange in East Africa (which was on the Arab trade routes). The varieties brought back to Portugal were such a success in Europe that the sweet orange became known as the "Portugal orange" in the mid-17th century. The Greek word for orange is still portokali.

Christopher Columbus took the sweet orange with him to the New World on his second voyage in 1493, planting the first tree in Haiti. The Spaniards and Portuguese spread them through central and south America, where it naturalised readily. In the 19th century, a seedless orange now known as the navel was discovered in Bahia, Brazil. An American missionary sent cuttings of these to Washington DC, which promoted its cultivation. This is the Washington navel of which the Leng navel, first discovered in Irymple, Victoria in 1934, is a mutant.

In Australia, oranges arrived with the First Fleet in 1788, and they were flourishing within the first year of settlement.

One of the popular variants of the sweet orange is the pigmented orange known as blood orange. It is believed to have originated either in Malta or Sicily although some suggest that it too may have its roots in China. The red streaks in the blood orange are due to anthocyanins. However, these powerful antioxidants will only develop in the blood orange if there are low night temperatures. (Note: The red pigmentation in pink and red grapefruit consists of lycopene and carotene which require high temperatures for their formation.)

Did you know there is a connection between elephants and oranges?

Did you know there is a connection between elephants and oranges?

Connection Between Oranges and Elephants

The word “orange” has various etymologies. The most charming of these is recounted in Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat’s History of Food, which ties its origin to the Sanskrit word for “fatal indigestion for elephants”. What do elephants have to do with oranges? An ancient legend tells of a greedy elephant in a time when animals could talk and man had not yet come about.

This elephant came across a tree weighed down by tempting golden fruit. It ate so much that it bursts. Much later, a human traveller came along and found the fossilised remains of the elephant. Out of what had been the stomach had sprung a cluster of trees bearing a thousand golden fruit. The man exclaimed, “Amazing! What a fine naga ranga.” (Meaning ‘fatal indigestion for elephants’.)

The subject trees were thereafter named naga ranga, which later became the Latin term aurantium, from which the French (and English) word orange is derived. Others believe “orange” comes from the Dravidian Indian word narayan meaning “perfume within”. This became the Arabic narandj which the Italians softened into arancia which in turn became orange in French.

Connection Between Oranges and Politics

The orange was regarded as a symbol of opulence in Europe. The Medici family of Florence had five oranges as part of their coat of arms. The most historic orange tree is that acquired by the Duke of Bourbon from Eleanor of Castille (wife of Charles III). It was the first orange tree in France and much coveted by the King, Francois I.

In 1552, when the Duke fled to Italy, the orange tree was seized along with his other possessions. An orangery was built around this tree at Fontainebleau. It was handed down to Louis XIV, dubbed "the king of fruits", who took it to Versailles. It died in 1858, never having borne a single fruit.

Toussaint-Samat recounts a tale of how Madame Du Barry brought about the fall of Choiseul, the foreign minister of Louis XV, while playing ball with an orange. Apparently her chants of "Jump, Choiseul! Fall, Choiseul!" every time the orange was thrown in the air persuaded the King to end Choiseul's political career.

Orange and fennel salad

Orange and fennel salad

Cooking With Oranges

The sweet orange is a culinary star. It adds a much gentler acidity than lemon to both savoury and sweet dishes.

Roast duck (and other game birds) with orange is a classic combination. Orange juice adds a lovely zing to carrots: think carrot and orange soup; lightly braised carrots with a squeeze of juice at the end; or as a dressing for a grated carrot and raisin salad with some toasted almond slivers for crunch. Maltese mayonnaise—made with blood orange juice instead of lemon juice or vinegar—is fantastic with asparagus, cold chicken salads or grilled fish.

Fennel and orange salad is a fresh clean counterpoint for rich main courses or grilled meats. Preparation is very simple: toss sliced fennel with orange segments (excluding the membranes), drizzle with good extra virgin olive oil and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

French and Italian orange-based desserts are best when serving Asian meals. (Traditional Chinese desserts tend to be "challenging" for the Western palate.) They provide more 'glamour' than a plate of fresh fruit—the usual finale for an Asian meal unless it's a celebratory banquet—but harmonise well with Asian flavours.

Venetian-Style Caramel Orange Dessert Recipe

This Venetian orange dish is an excellent end for any Asian meal, whether it be a fiery curry feast or home-style Cantonese. It's lovely just on its own. It could be made into a more complex dessert simply by pairing it with almond-based cakes or pastries. There's something about the combination of oranges and almonds that's quite magical.


  • 4 to 6 oranges, preferably navels
  • 300 grams sugar
  • 150 ml cold water
  • ½ cinnamon stick
  • 150 ml hot water
  • Lightly toasted flaked almonds


  1. Remove the zest of the oranges with a zester. Set aside for use later. Remove the pith and membrane covering the oranges. Cut each orange cross-ways into slices, If you wish, you can re-form the oranges by securing the slices with two toothpicks. Place in a serving bowl or deep-sided dish.
  2. Put the sugar, water and cinnamon into a small saucepan over moderate heat, stirring to ensure that all the sugar is dissolved before boiling point is reached. Cook to a golden caramel. Remove from heat and slowly add the hot water. Be careful as the caramel will spit furiously. Stir until smooth, replacing over low heat to dissolve any lumps. Pour all but several tablespoons of the syrup over the oranges.
  3. Replace the remaining syrup over low heat and add the zest. Simmer for a few minutes until the zest just turns translucent. Pour over the oranges.
  4. Cover the bowl or dish with clingfilm and chill the oranges for at least 1 hour. Place each orange or several slices of orange on serving plates, spoon some syrup and zest over and top with toasted flaked almonds.

Suggested Pairings

  • Orange-almond tart: Rich pastry filled with creamed mixture of butter, sugar, eggs, ground almonds; baked until golden brown; and finished with a marmalade glaze.
  • Orange syrup cake: Essentially a rich butter cake incorporating orange zest and candied orange peel. A hot syrup made with orange juice is poured over the cake as soon as the cake comes out of the oven. The cake soaks up all the syrup and is wonderfully moist.
  • Financiers: Tiny cakes made with egg whites, icing sugar and ground almonds. Very quick and easy to do, they are great for dunking into the orange caramel syrup.
  • Almond bread biscuits or better still, a version with candied peel to add another orange dimension to the experience.