Here in the Basque Country, and all over Spain, December marks the start of the winter citrus season, and sweet, juicy oranges are the superstars. Freshly squeezed orange juice is a basic part of everyday life. Virtually all bakeries and cafés, along with many restaurants and bars, offer freshly squeezed juice, and many people prepare it at home each morning.
To put a figure on it, according to data from the Spanish Ministry of the Environment and Rural and Marine Affairs, in 2009, people in Spain drank 138 million liters of freshly squeezed orange juice, 40% of which was prepared and consumed in bars and cafés.
Throughout the winter season, many people order boxes of sweet oranges from growers in Valencia, Spain’s primary growing region.
This past week, several of my English conversation students (teachers themselves) were eagerly awaiting the delivery of a massive order of oranges they had organized through their school. Naturally, we discussed the ways in which we generally enjoy oranges, and fresh juice topped the list.
I grew up drinking orange juice, like many Americans, out of a carton, or reconstituted from a small tube of frozen concentrate. Mixing up that 3:1 water-to-concentrate ratio was a domestic ritual I took great pride in. Check out this (admittedly nostalgic) video clip from the 1968 short film, Bottled Sunshine…A Juicy Story.
My brother and I debated which was better, more “real” tasting: Tropicana (owned by PepsiCo Inc.) or Minute Maid (owned by The Coca-Cola Company). If you are interested in pondering that debate in mind-boggling, unnerving detail, visit Tropicana vs. Minute Maid: The Ultimate Fight!
What my brother and I didn’t know was that for more than 20 years before our first sips of any kid of orange juice, the American orange industry had been on a mission to make it almost impossible for anything but juice made from concentrate to form the basis of our opinions about orange juice. In fact, our experience with “real” – freshly squeezed – orange juice was almost nil.
In 1966, Pulitzer-Prize winning writer John McPhee wrote a short piece about oranges and orange juice in The New Yorker, which blossomed into Oranges, his 1967 masterpiece of narrative nonfiction and one of my favorite reads of all time.
McPhee explains that just after the Second World War, scientists in Florida developed the first commercial orange-juice concentrate (“…orange juice that has been boiled to high viscosity in a vacuum, separated into several component parts, reassembled, flavored, and then frozen solid”), and changed the course of American juice history.
Concentrated orange juice began to set the standard for what people expected and preferred, like so many food products of its time — a laboratory-generated formula, consistent, predictable, universally available, aggressively marketed…branded.
Before the development of juice concentrate, says McPhee,
People in the United States [consumed] more fresh oranges than all other fresh fruits combined, but in less than twenty years [since the development of orange-juice concentrate] the per-capita consumption has gone down seventy-five per cent, as appearances of actual oranges in most of the United States have become steadily less frequent.
McPhee describes his quest for a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice during his visit to Florida’s Citrus Ridge, one of the most productive orange-growing regions in the world, historically outproducing Spain and Italy combined.
In a restaurant on the Ridge whose parking lot was shaded by fruit-laden orange trees, a waitress informed McPhee that freshly squeezed juice was not available.
There were never any requests for fresh orange juice, the waitress explained, apparently unmindful of the one that had just been made. ‘Fresh is either too sour or too watery or too something,’ she said. ‘Frozen is the same every day. People want to know what they’re getting.’ She seemed to know her business, and I began to sense what turned out to be the truth–that I might as well stop asking for fresh orange juice, because few restaurants in Florida serve it.
At some point in my adolescence, around the time I started my seven-year stint as a vegetarian and began to shun industrially processed foods, I got sucked into the “not-from-concentrate” myth. I believed, for example, that when I guzzled my sweet Tropicana Pure Premium, I was basically drinking boxed (?), freshly (?) squeezed (?) juice.
Deep down I knew that it was somehow different from the freshly squeezed juices I had tried over the years, but my critical thinking seemed to shut down when all I had to do to quench my teenage thirst was open the fridge and pour myself a tall glass of “100% Pure Squeezed Florida Sunshine.”
In her eye-opening 2010 book, Squeezed: What You Don’t Know about Orange Juice, Alissa Hamilton explains why my 59-ounce container of “not-from-concentrate” Tropicana Pure Premium, while boasting that is “has 16 fresh-picked Florida oranges squeezed into it” is not quite what it seems.
In reality, it may have the rough equivalent, in liquid measure, of juice from 16 oranges, but that juice was poured into my container from a massive, homogeneous juice ocean that is essentially “heated, stripped of flavour, stored for up to a year, and then reflavored before it is packaged and sold.”
Freshly squeezed orange juice tastes fresh naturally, and some supermarkets do sell it. However, “from concentrate” and most “not from concentrate” orange juice undergo processes that strip the flavor from the juice. The largest producers of “not from concentrate” or pasteurized orange juice keep their juice in million-gallon aseptic storage tanks to ensure a year round supply. Aseptic storage involves stripping the juice of oxygen, a process known as “deaeration,” so the juice doesn’t oxidize in the “tank farms” in which the juice sits, sometimes for as long as a year.
Flavor packs are fabricated from the chemicals that make up orange essence and oil. Flavor and fragrance houses, the same ones that make high end perfumes, break down orange essence and oils into their constituent chemicals and then reassemble the individual chemicals in configurations that resemble nothing found in nature. Ethyl butyrate is one of the chemicals found in high concentrations in the flavor packs added to orange juice sold in North American markets, because flavor engineers have discovered that it imparts a fragrance that Americans like, and associate with a freshly squeezed orange.
Incredibly, the Food and Drug Administration does not require companies to list these mysterious flavor packs, or their components, as ingredients of concentrated or not-from-concentrate juices.
Curious to know what industrial juice processing actually looks like? Check out this amazing window into the industry: the Juice Stabilization and Preservation chapter of an article entitled, Principles and practices of small- and medium- scale fruit juice processing, published in the Food and Agriculture Organization‘s Agricultural Services Bulletin in 2001.
So?, you may retort, Who cares?! You love your processed orange juice (like this blogger), and you always have. It just tastes right to you; it reminds you of home, of your childhood, and you come down fiercely on one side or the other of the “which-is-better” big-brand debate. Furthermore, you may say, so what if the flavor is extracted and then added back in, if that’s what they have to do to fix it up after making it ‘safe’ by pasteurizing it? Or maybe you just think making fresh juice is too messy, expensive, or time-consuming, and you don’t even have a juicer…. Well, I understand. I’ve been there. Taste, after all, is personal, right?
But sometimes we may not realize how much our taste preferences have been shaped by industry needs and objectives, rather than by what we might truly need or enjoy. Far too often, we are, in fact, tastewashed by the food industry, and the messes, costs and lost time we worry about…well, we simply trade one set of those for another less immediately bothersome set. My feeling is that what comes around goes around, but I’ll bite my tongue on the rest of that diatribe…for now!
Maybe you agree that making your own freshly squeezed juice on a cold winter’s morning is the closet thing to sunshine in a glass you could ever taste (and I’m not talking about a cocktail here!). And maybe you accept, and even enjoy, the fact that to every thing there is a season, and that a little unpredictability and variety in your juice glass can be a good, interesting, stimulating, healthy thing!
Or maybe you think that all sounds great but you haven’t got the gear, the material, the routine. Don’t hold back! The season is upon us! Get a juicer! (A good manual model, like this one, does a great job for under $10, and a basic electric juicer, like this one, shouldn’t set you back more than $20.) Get some quality, reasonably-priced oranges by ordering them online (in the U.S., try here or here; in Spain, try here) or buying them from a wholesaler)! Now get juicing! It’s good for you!
So whether you just received your giant box of oranges from Valencia, or you’re otherwise stockpiling fresh oranges and supercharging your days with juicy sunshine, you may be looking for ways to incorporate fresh juice into recipes. Some of these on Yummly look tasty.
But what about all of those leftover rinds? Don’t throw them away! Make candied peels!
During my time as an intern at Chez Panisse, I fell in love with candied citrus peels. We made them from the rinds of grapefruits, lemons and oranges that had been juiced for various savory and sweet dishes.
With the holidays just around the bend, you can give candied peels as gifts just as they are (perhaps dipped in chocolate!), or you can add them to your holiday fruitcake or cookie recipes, decorate your roscón de reyes, garnish your arroz con leche, accent your cheese plate, perfume your tea…use them anywhere you are looking to add a bit of sparkle.
I adapted this recipe from the one I learned from Claire Ptak, former Chez Panisse pastry chef and owner of Violet, a beloved East London bakery. I added some spices that remind me of my mom’s Greek holiday cookies.
I used some gorgeous, enormous, organically grown navel oranges I found at my local market, but you can use the same recipe to candy the peels of any of the thicker-skinned citrus fruits.
RECIPE: CANDIED ORANGE PEELS
12 large orange halves, after they’ve been juiced (from 6 whole oranges)
1 kilo (5 cups) granulated white sugar
1.5 liters (6 1/3 cups) water
20 whole cloves
20 whole allspice berries
3 bay leaves
200 grams (1 cup) granulated white sugar
1. In cold running water, scrub the outsides of the rinds to remove any dirt. (Better yet, scrub the oranges before juicing them.)
2. In a large pot, cover the rinds with cold water, bring the pot to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Drain and repeat the process two more times. Drain and rinse in cold water. You may want to place a heatproof-dish directly on top of the rinds as they cook to keep them under the surface of the water.)
3. On a clean cutting board, use a paring knife to gently remove the remaining pulp and most of the pith from the rinds. I find it helpful to first halve each half, then halve those pieces again lengthwise, so you are left working with 1/8-orange segments. Then run the blade of the knife lengthwise through the pith layer, between the skin and the leftover pulp.
4. Slice the cleaned peels into strips and reserve.
5. Combine the sugar, water, spices and bay leaves in a large, clean pot and heat until the sugar is completely dissolved.
6. Add the sliced peels to the syrup, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and maintain at a low, steady simmer for about 2 hours. Stir occasionally and watch carefully toward the end of the process. If the syrup starts getting too thick, add a small amount of water and stir to incorporate. The peels are finished cooking when they are extremely tender and the pith is translucent.
8. Let the peels cool slightly in the syrup, then remove them with a slotted spoon and spread them out on a rack (over a tray lined with foil or parchment paper). Allow them to dry for about 12 hours. (You can cool and save the syrup for pancakes or other recipes!)
9. At this point the peels should be somewhat moist and sticky but not difficult to handle. Roll them one by one in granulated sugar. Work in small batches with a small bit of sugar at a time, as the sugar will start to get clumpy and humid if too many peels roll through it. Allow the peels to dry again on a rack for at least 12 hours.
10. At this point, they can be dipped into melted chocolate (and allowed to dry again), incorporated into recipes, or simply sent on their merry way, just as they are, sweet little things.
Enjoy! Happy Holidays! On Egin!