Forget the icy cold, juiceless and tasteless specimens you inevitably find in supermarkets these days. There is surely no citrus on earth tastier than the just picked, naturally ripened and unrefrigerated oranges and mandarins that are abundantly available from the many little farm stalls alongside the N7 in the Olifants River Valley.
And, as if the thought of the fragrant, sweet and juicy fruit reward at the end of my pilgrimage was not enough to keep my foot firmly on the accelerator, the journey through the Swartland – having recently soaked up the winter rains – was spectacular.
An early scattering of wild flowers – including Namaqualand daisies, chincherinchee, ixias and heliophila – flanked the long, smooth road, and the vineyards beyond Malmesbury were beginning to bud with tiny, hopeful shoots covering the knotty, bare vines in a sprinkling of fuzzy green. Fields of youthful wheat bent gently in the breeze. And, at the foot of the steep and winding Piekenierskloof Pass, which leads you out of the Swartland, vast meadows of brilliant yellow canola stretched from the roadside to the craggy, grey mountains in the distance.
Citrusdal lies in the valley on the other side of the pass. It is not necessary, however, to go into the town to sample the region’s juicy treasure. As you travel directly along the N7, you will soon spot the lively homemade billboards announcing the farm stalls ahead: “Kom proe (come taste),” summon large, clumsily painted words that are generally accompanied by countless exclamation marks lest you mistake the significance of the invitation.
“Are we going to stop at a kom proe on our way to the Cederberg?” asked my Afrikaans-disabled son repeatedly for many years when he was younger whenever we headed towards Citrusdal.
Most of the farm stalls in the Olifants River Valley, I have observed, are manned by men. But, make no mistake; these are not just any men. They are men who know their oranges inside out and who are delighted to share their enormous knowledge with everyone who stops by.
The stalls are, in the main, simple, tiny structures featuring a door, hatch and sometimes a small stoep. But, regardless of their architecture and proportions, they are all packed to capacity with a great variety of oranges, naartjies, grapefruit and lemons, all of which all await your tasting and buying pleasure.
Indeed, if you have been impressed by the assortment of “seedless navels, easy-peeling clementines, flavourful midnight oranges, sweet valencias, bitter sevilles, and refreshing mineolas” that are squeezed onto the shelves at supermarkets, you will be amazed by the interesting new cultivars you will find on the side of the road near Citrusdal. What’s more, you can taste them all at your leisure. And, if you are really lucky (like I was during my most recent trip), you will encounter the village’s citrus connoisseur extraordinaire, Oom Wouter at one of the stalls, and he will tell you every thing you ever wanted to know about citrus and a whole lot more besides.
“No, no, no. That is not a naartjie,” he said, shaking his head at me impatiently. “It is a hybrid we have just released this year. You taste it here for the first time. Of course, ja, it tastes sweet and rich like a naartjie. But come on now; take a closer look at the size of segments and cells. Can you see? It is an orange that has no seeds, peels like a naartjie, tastes like a naartjie but has the largest, juiciest cells possible. No, it is definitely not a mineola. See, the peel is much firmer,”
Oom Wouter is not only horticulturally clued-up – “Did you know oranges grown on one side of a tree are better than oranges grown on the other side?” – he is also a historian.
He taught me that the word naartjie (Afrikaans for mandarin) comes from the Tamil word “nartei”, which means citrus. And, did you know that oranges were first grown in South Africa (now among the world’s top citrus producers) when Jan van Riebeeck planted some trees on his farm, Borsheuval outside Cape Town? A short while later, more than a 1 000 trees from Portugal were planted in the Company Gardens. Citrus was first grown in warm Olifants River Valley in the late 18th century.
“Ja, citrus has quite a history in this country,” he said, handing me remarkably heavy, smooth skinned fruit. “Oranges were first harvested in South Africa in 1661. That is 100 years before the Americans even began planting them in California. It’s true. We were probably already donnering refs with naartjies at rugby matches before the yanks dug the first hole. But you know, oranges actually originated thousands of years ago in Asia, in the region from southern China to Indonesia,”
He watched me weigh the beautifully round and glossy orange in my hand: “Ja, it’s heavy, hey,” he remarked, taking it from me and balancing it on his palm. “Now that is the sign of a really juicy orange that is probably also chock full of flavour. What is interesting about that is that generally oranges that are smaller are juicier than the big ones. This is an exception. It is the one you must send to school with your kids. You see, it is very easy to peel and makes no mess. They can even do it secretly in class. It is sweet and juicy so they like it. And the fibre of the orange pulp gives a moerse long release of energy for kids. It is much better than other snacks that give a quick burst of energy that does not last for long.”
The only challenge about visiting the citrus stalls near Citrusdal is deciding what to buy. It is tempting to squeeze as many pockets of fruit into the car as you can. The produce is inexpensive and delicious, but there are only so many oranges, naartjies, grapefruit and lemons a small family can consume before the fruit begins to decompose.
“Nonsense,” boomed Oom Wouter. “Do you know how many fantastic recipes there are that use citrus. Come now. You can make juice and marmalade. There’s nothing like a citrus salad at the braai. And what about juice in soup, stews and marinades? Have you tried duck a l’orange? It is good with chicken and pork too. And just look in your books when you get home and you will see how recipes use citrus for baking.”
As he stacked the final pocket of oranges carefully into my car, Oom Wouter must have noticed that my eyes had begun to glaze over. He stood back and, admiring the generous load, rubbed his hands together in satisfaction: “Ja, mevrou,” he smiled. “Do you know why the oke was fired from the orange juice factory? No? He couldn’t concentrate.”
He turned and, with a wave, headed back to the stall. I drove home to delight my family with the tastiest oranges on earth and to churn out vast quantities of marmalade.
Seville Orange Marmalade
(Makes about 4,5 kg)
1,4 kg Seville oranges, washed
Juice of two lemons
3,4 litres water
2,7 kg sugar
Halve the oranges and squeeze out the juice and pips. Tie the pips and any accompanying membrane in muslin. Slice the orange peel and put it in a pot with the fruit juice (including that of the lemon), water and muslin pouch of pips and membrane. Simmer gently for about two hours until the peel is soft and the liquid is reduced by half. Remove the muslin pouch. Add the sugar and heat gently, stirring until the granules have dissolved. Bring to the boil and boil the mixture rapidly for about 15 minutes. Test for set by putting a tiny amount on a cold saucer. If the surface of the marmalade wrinkles, setting point is reached. At this point take off it the heat and remove any scum. Leave to stand for 15 minutes and then stir to distribute the peel. Spoon into clean jars and seal.
(Originally published in The Weekender.)