When fragrancing Liz Earle Naturally Active Skincare and Haircare we use an array of citrus oils, including bitter and sweet oranges, mandarin, lemon, grapefruit and bergamot. One of the most fascinating things about the genus Citrus is that almost all parts of the plants can be used to produce fragrant oils. The flowers, leaves, fruit and even twigs are distilled or expressed for their essential oils and all of them have a distinctive fragrance. I’m a particular fan of oranges, especially at Christmas, when their cheery colour, spicy scent and zing on the tongue evoke the joys of the season.
I’m an enthusiastic participant in all aspects of the Christmas season, from Christmas cakes and sugar mice to homemade ornaments and wreaths. But nothing gives me as big a kick as Christmas stockings (well, maybe the faces of teenagers hauled out of bed at 7am to open them). The fundamental foundation of every stocking is the orange stuck in the toe (in our house, we prefer oranges with loose jackets like satsumas, mandarins and clementines). The pragmatist in me says that the valuable space an orange takes up in the toe of the stocking reduces the amount of money you spend filling it. The ethnobotanist in me says that’s only part of the story, so I set out to explore the origins of the Christmas orange.
In the immortal words of Julie Andrews in the perennial Christmas favourite The Sound of Music ‘let’s start at the very beginning.’ To identify the region in which the ancestors of modern citrus fruits first grew, taxonomists (researchers who classify species) took into account the plant’s needs for water and high mean annual temperature, looking for geographic areas that met these criteria and had the ethnobotanical link that could explain documented historical distribution. Taxonomists identified the mountainous regions of southern China and northeastern India, where citrus would have evolved in the sheltered valleys and on south-facing slopes. Protected from mountain winds and watered by the warm monsoons, citrus spread by seeds and cuttings carried out of Yunnan, Assam and Burma by traders travelling through the mountain passes. The different species and varieties would have evolved not where the genus arose, but where the seeds and cuttings had been taken by traders.
On the basis of physical and chemical characteristics and genetic makeup, scientists have proposed three true species from which all other cultivated species, crosses and varieties originate: Citrus medica (citron), Citrus maxima (pomelo) and Citrus reticulata (mandarin). All loose-skinned oranges, including satsuma or clementine, are types of mandarin. The mandarin can even lay claim to both the bitter and the sweet orange. They’re a cross between the pomelo and the mandarin, showing how different varieties can be produced from the same parents, sharing some common characteristics yet being drastically different in others (just like kids). The bitter orange appeared in Europe in the 10th century, but there is no written evidence to support the introduction of the sweet orange into Europe until the 15th century.
So how did oranges end up in Christmas stockings? Some think they are a symbol of the golden balls children were given by St. Nick, others of golden coins given out by royalty. Or maybe it’s just because they taste nice and keep the kids quiet for a while?
Oranges would have been expensive delicacies imported into Britain – an exotic, colourful, fresh fruit putting in an appearance in the dead of winter. Then, in the 17th century, the English aristocracy adopted a Dutch craze and the orange became a show of wealth and social status, with orangeries sprouting from the sides of country houses and in grand gardens.
Oranges have long been used as the base for pomanders – perfumed balls used to scent musty medieval rooms and modern linen cupboards. Sticking anything in an orange gives my husband childhood flashbacks of citrus porcupined with cocktail sticks of cheese, but it is easy to create a festive and elegant seasonal decoration with a scent that’ll infuse your home with the holiday spirit.
To create a pomander you’ll need:
1 medium or large orange or other citrus fruit
About 1 oz (25g) cloves
1 teaspoon of ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon of allspice
1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
A length of ribbon
A similar length of fabric tape
A few pins and cocktail sticks
Paper bags or tissue paper
Gently knead the orange in your hands to soften the skin. Use the fabric tape to divide the surface of the orange into four quarters, pinning it into place. Pierce the skin of the orange with the cocktail stick and press in a clove stem first. Make sure the cloves aren’t touching: holes that are too close inevitably become one and the cloves fall out. You can arrange your cloves in a pattern that partially or completely covers the orange, or just stick in as many cloves as the orange has skin surface to hold.
Mix the ground spices together and put them in a paper bag. Place the orange into the bag and gently roll it in the spices, tipping the bag to completely cover the pomander. Gently remove the orange from the bag, shaking off the excess spices and wrap in tissue paper or leave in the paper bag. Store the pomander for a few days in a dry, warm place like the airing cupboard, leaving it until the skin under the tape is dry. Once it is dry, remove the tape and replace it with a ribbon, tying it tight around the orange. Be careful not to do this last step too soon or the pomander will continue to shrink as it dries, leaving the ribbon too loose to hold it safely.
Hang your pomander wherever you want to scent the air. Mine are in the linen and hall cupboards, but come Christmas week they’ll be the centrepiece on my dining room table.