“Ain’t no sunshine!” announced The Guardian last week (as if we didn’t already know that!). One of the darkest on records (yeah we had suspected). Gloomiest winter since records began (no kidding). Trips to the therapist up by 30% ….(hmmm – anyone got the number of a good one?). Just as you begin to hang you head in despair and think about phoning up a therapist you suddenly realise not all is lost. Forget the therapist. Hang-up the phone. Swivel your eyes to the market and look at all the beautiful array of citrus fruit.
Yes ladies and gentlemen – citrus fruit are in season as I write from a dark “tupperware-box-like” Belgium. That bright orange ball ripened by the Iberian sun is the chink of light that’s been missing since the Christmas lights were switched off a couple of weeks ago.
The blood-red oranges grown in the shadow of Mount Etna joyfully show-off their regal ruby-red interior – a sign that somewhere there is still light …
…whilst the grapefruit from Spain taste cleansing and refreshing.
…a roast chicken coated in rosemary and oranges keeps the roast succulent and moist.
…and the juice of oranges squeezed over a beetroot salad works amazingly well.
Cheerful green limes from Mexico are a happy symbol of the sun that we have not seen for months.….and this year, for the very first time …. from Calabria….I present you bergamot!
The most precious of citrus fruit. The top-notch of the citrus jet-set, the luxury designer item from Italy, the fruit with a touch of elegance and the smell of extravagance. The rare, fussy and delicate citrus that refuses to grow anywhere other than a narrow 75 km strip of Volcanic rock in Calabria. Transplant them to anywhere else in the world and they refuse to become bergamot. Bergamot is the scent of old upper-crust perfumes. It is the taste of Earl Grey tea. Bergamots is the citrus fruit of choice for Parisian haute couture perfumes.
And guess what bergamot has graciously decided to make an appearance here! In Leuven! I am still surprised that the paparazzi haven’t turned up to record this spectacular arrival. It’s as if Sophia Loren herself has turned up with big dark sunglasses from Capri, Audrey Hepburn has jetted in on a Vespa after filming Roman Holiday and Gregory Peck has just flown in from Sorrento for the occasion. Not that anyone here has really noticed – but I have and I’ve been going a bit Bergamot crazy. Buying a couple of kilos every week for the past three weeks.
The scent is as wonderful as everyone says. A delicate cross between lemon and orange. A zing of freshness as you grate into the yellow skin. I want to preserve my bergamots like precious jewels and get them out now and then to fill the house with their cargo of precious oils all year round. But I can’t. Like all produce they need to be eaten and used otherwise they will shrivel up and eventually go mouldy. So, I’ve been making bergamot curd (which tastes just like lemon curd), bergamot marmalade with limoncello, which tastes very similar to orange marmalade, I’ve been using bergamot juice in my ginger beer and salad dressings and using it as an acid in my meaty marinades – and it all ends up tasting a bit like lemon. It really is delightful but the quality that makes bergamot unique is, I have to admit, a little bit lost in the cooking process. That’s because the unique characteristic of a bergamot is the essential oils found in its skin. The bedazzling oil that perfumers the world over seek.
Who cares if in the cooking process it looses some of its qualities. Go for the glamour of bergamot. If nothing else when you work this delightful little ball of yellow sunlight the smell will leave your hands smelling fresh for at least an hour. The kitchen fills up with the zest of life even if outside is all gloom. So – do not despair – in this darkest of months we have lovely citrus fruits to liven up our otherwise dull season. Embrace them, eat them and enjoy them until the Spring arrives!