Thursday, March 10, 2011

Discovery in a Roman Market - My First Blood Orange

I remember the first time I ever saw a blood orange.  Several years ago, I visited Rome with a good friend and we spent a delightful few days wandering through cobbled streets, searching out storied landmarks, losing ourselves in serpentine alleys and just generally discovering the beauty of antiquity.  We sipped creamy hazelnut cappuccinos, feasted on Roman delicacies and walked until our feet throbbed with the effort of exploration.

It was after a long morning of just such wandering and discovery that we stumbled upon a local market tucked into the confines of an ancient square.  We had already taken in the famous market at the Campo dei Fiori, with its bags of tri-color pasta and tiny, kitschy flasks of limoncello, but this was something entirely different.  There were no signs to directs us, no unending streams of tourists to follow blindly - just empty, sun-tinted alleys and, suddenly, a colorful burst of life.

The square reeked with the presence of a fishmonger and rang with the back-and-forth, sing-song patois of commerce.  Wizened men, wrapped round in canvas aprons, stood behind haphazard pyramids of produce affecting nonchalance, but every now and then tenderly catching up a piece of fruit to polish it in an apron corner.  Housewives gossiped and laughed under the awnings, still possessed of that uniquely Roman, stately self awareness, even in their daily errands.  Bathed in the sort of ochre sunlight that one always imagines to be shining on Italy, the scene was awash with color and, for a moment, we felt as though we had stumbled upon a movie set or a secret society hidden in the labyrinthine backstreets of Rome.

We walked the narrow furrows between the grocers' carts, taking care not to brush the delicate piles of produce with a errant gesture or a careless elbow.  We purchased some dried dates from a barrel and a cluster of grapes wrapped in paper.  I found a few fat-looking figs and, envisioning fresh bread and a milk-white slab of rich goat cheese, purchased them for the next day's breakfast.

My canvas backpack was nearly full with a precious array of jewel-toned finds when I spotted the oranges.  Shielded imperfectly by the yellow awning stretched overhead, I was drawn to a bright blush of red where a few fruits caught the late afternoon sun.  At first I thought I was mistaken, tricked by the light, but a closer inspection proved they were real.  "Sanguigna," the man behind the cart smiled, proudly. Blood oranges.  And it really did look as though each orange had been wounded, touched with blood that shone wetly in the light.  I wanted to try one, but the weight of my backpack reminded me of our other treasures already purchased and the short time we would have to enjoy them before saying goodbye to Rome.  " Bellissimo," I smiled back at the grocer and left the oranges behind.

But not forgotten.

So you can imagine my surprise when I saw a familiar blush of red amongst the rounded shapes of oranges at the grocery store last week.  I'm not sure if they were a good price, but I knew I had to try one.  Matt has grown accustomed to my attraction to unusual foods and he readily agreed.  Of course, picking an orange from a bin at the local supermarket is not exactly like discovering one bathed in sunlight under the awning of an Italian grocer's cart, but such experiences are better had late than never at all.  To recreate my Roman experience I took the orange into the sun outside and decided to make a sensory experience of eating it.  I photographed it with a green silk scarf I bought on that long-ago trip to Rome and then found a spot on a sunlit bench to enjoy:

The skin is the color of a Mediterranean sunset, with bright oranges resolving into rich scarlet and dusky reds and browns.  Slightly less than round, the fruit is pleasantly heavy with the promise of the rich ruby flesh inside.  Lightly dimpled skin is firm and cool to the touch, yet yields easily to the knife which causes small, cold beads of blood-red juice to well up on the cut surface.

At first taste it's the sweetest orange, tangy and the slightest bit tart, but with a 'heavier' feel in the mouth.  The flavor seems more weighty and mature, as if a blood orange were just an adult version of the oranges we commonly eat.  Even the pith, usually inedible for me, is flavorful and delicious.  A few seconds pass and the tangy notes dissipate, leaving a round sweetness that I can only describe as berry-like.  Suddenly I taste raspberry lemonade and then I realize that what I am actually tasting is sangria, with it's dry, slightly acidic wine mingled with sugary fruit.  The flesh, too, smells of sangria - less astringent than the normal smell of oranges.  I am so caught up in the tasting and the long-awaited experience that soon this scent is all that remains of my orange, a sweet, clean smell on my fingertips.

It may have taken years for my first taste of this exotic winter fruit, but it was worth the wait.  Sadly, now that my orange is gone I have the urge to look up blood orange recipes and figure out ways to get more of this unusual, grown-up flavor.  I know I can use blood oranges anywhere that normal oranges are used, but I want recipes that showcase its unique flavor and magnificent color - do you know any?  Perhaps that's a question for the grocer in the market, next time I'm in Rome.

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