Sweet Joy of Orange

One of the special December treats during my childhood in Hungary was the warm, sweet yet fresh smell of orange. At that time, late ‘70s and early ‘80s, tropical fruits were not around all year round. They only entered our life as an exotic luxury bringing the promise of sunny summers into our wintry snowy Christmas days. Our mother was peeling the golden fruits for us and already breaking through the rind, amplified sweet freshness wafted through the room and brought us joy, smile and calmness.

The article was originally written for and published in the issue 2017/2 of Aromatika Magazine, an online publication in Hungary to support holistic living, the practice and professional education of aromatherapy, phytotherapy, naturopathy and related subjects. My special thanks and gratitude goes to Gergely Hollódi, editor-in-chief of this beautifully constructed aromatherapy periodical for his always encouraging support. Hope you enjoy the English version in this post. The original copy of the electronic magazine in Hungarian is available for download from the website of Aromatika Magazine.

A lasting experience

Fast forward in time and move forward in place, almost 40 years later finding myself in Crete where orange trees are peacefully offering their uplifting companion for us in all seasons continuously. The instant image I have from here is the energising riverside walks through the orange groves of Stylos, a small village in West Crete. Indeed energizing, and I often come here for jogging too. The temperature at this fabled area – even during the hottest days – can still be relatively fresh due to the proximity of the spring water coming down from the mountains. Parallel to the river bank is a dirt road that only occasionally used by farm cars and where you’ve got plenty of shade as well. Anyway, observing nature can easily engage your attention completely forgetting about what might bother you otherwise. In its purity and simplicity, this orange grove is a must-experience programme for all my visitors coming to Crete.

Flowering orange trees near Stylos in April
Millions of oranges are dying on Crete

Orange trees can be found all over the island, of course. Moreover, the current situation is that seemingly they are more bounteous than wanted. It happens so very often that I run into areas where I compassionately observe the reality feeling to cry out to the world: People, watch this! Millions of oranges are dying on Crete!

Rotten fruits under the orange trees

Naturally it happens that there are abandoned fields due to family issues, deaths or leaving the village to try luck abroad. But my understanding is that what happens in large scale is a side-effect of the European subvention system that was put in place several decades ago. In the past, farmers got paid not to collect certain produce… Quotas and preferences, payments for non-picking here giving way to other exporters some countries else. Artificially remapping the flow of life from what it was meant to be.

The positive side though, there are emerging eco-minded practices and communities all over the world where sharing experiences and ideas are the way forward to come up with solutions and support to help transiting the world economy from the competitive to the cooperative approach. Anyway, we are discussing about plant medicine and aromatherapy in this context, so you might say enough of economic philosophies for now. Nevertheless, I think it is important to bring and keep these issues in the minds of each and every individual, if nothing else, giving your votes through your conscious choices and responsible behaviour as a consumer.

The gift of orange

As a local solution, oranges are often used as a gift when visiting friends, or donated to people who live in town and do not have their own trees. I myself many times have been blessed with visitors bringing me bags of beautiful fresh oranges. Sometimes I get too many, so I pass some along and share mine with others. As much as I can, I try to use them all in plenty of different ways. Obviously I eat them, either plain or squeezed to juice. It’s wonderful in salads, with yogurt, and I blend never-ending varieties of different shakes. Needless to say, orange find its way to making cakes and flavouring sweets. For cooking, it can be a decoration on plates, but in the traditional Cretan meals it is very often used as an ingredient. Just lately, on one of our Plant Walks that was complete with a group meal, participants were surprised to learn that the beans were cooked together with orange peel since it helps digestion in addition to giving our stew a very refined extra flavour.

Red cabbage salad with orange slices

When I got too many oranges to eat all ahead of going off, I started making orange marmalade. It has become very successful since I make it with honey and some spices like ginger or cinnamon that go very well with it. Otherwise, I also keep the peel whenever I can and dry them so that I can use in teas and infusions. In wintertime, for example, I boil slices of orange (fresh or dry) together with ginger, cinnamon, apple, sometime sage, or whatever feels good at the moment – which is not only tasty but greatly  supports the immune system, just to mention one of the main benefits.

Simply wonderful

In terms of its essential oil, what is more known that sweet orange (Citrus sinensis) can be cold-pressed from the peel to extract its oily essence. An extending circle of artisan distillers distill it for both oil and hydrosol, using either the peel or the whole fruit.

Sweet orange essential oil  tend to be considered a very simple product, and so not appreciated that much. But I think if they did nothing, but make people happier that is already a lot! If you never tried putting a few drops of orange oil into an oil burner/vaporizer, or just forgot how mood lifting this can be, I suggest to go for it now in order to create a cheerful atmosphere and invite more joy to your soul. The world is so full of anxiety and stress, it makes just common sense to involve orange essences as a natural sweetener in our life.

Citrus-based uplifting aromatherapy spray
From sorrow to happiness

Both the essential oil and the hydrosol can be beautifully combined with other aromatic essences, and I also like to use it in my perfumes for its fresh, light and sweet nature. One of the personal spray blends I composed for someone included orange essential oil and literally the whole collection of various citrus oils, next to other “caring” ingredients like rose and benzoe in order to help her escape from moments of depression.

Since we have all these amazing orange trees in Crete, last year I wanted to do a distillation to make my own hydrosol for various mixtures, however, my good friend Manolis had decided to cut off many of the trees from his biological farm! What a loss… I was shocked to find out, and he also seemed to feel a bit sorry after I explained how we could have used the redundant fruits. We had already been through many exciting herbal and aromatic adventures together combining our individual knowledge and experience and introducing new experimental pioneer projects in Crete. We finally agreed to save the situation by collecting the flowers and distill them. Since we needed a lot of flowers for a distillation, we ended up harvesting and co-distilling three type of citrus flowers together: sweet orange, mandarin and lemon. Picking the flowers in itself was a promenade in heaven. Flying from one tree to the other in the company of other sedulous bees. Imagine the scents, the colours, the white of orange flower in contrast of the purple-coloured buds of lemon trees that open into white flowers too. To add a bit of green, we also let a very few falling leaves to remain in the pile and enrich the end-result, after all it was about to be a mixed distillation.

Ildiko collecting citrus flowers

Speaking of colours, it is interesting to mention that while the fresh hydrolat was colourless, days later it turned into a very definite bright glowing yellow, almost like a full-bodied white wine. No surprise that the aroma is quite complex, could do as a perfume in itself, with not only floral but green notes as well. To describe its taste is a bit challenging for me as I have a mixture from all my senses here… somehow, I could call in the aroma of a good retsina, the Greek wine that has its unique flavour from pine resin. Although our hydrosol is not bitter, and if I could translate the smell of lilac into a taste, that would be it. And it is just a funny coincidence that I am coming up with my sensing and reading this one-of-a-time hydrosol slightly after mother’s day, which takes me to the sweet memories of childhood offering my mother a bucket of fresh picked lilacs. What an inspiration for a gift package to my Mom!

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