Dropping Oranges

During winters growing up in Iowa, one common holiday gift came from a well-meaning neighbor or friend: the Fruit of the Month Club from an outfit like Harry & David. The promise of a box of giant-sized “luxury” grapefruit and oranges in the dreariest months seemed like a miracle, a gracious blessing from an exotic land far away. I would pore over the catalogs that accompanied this feast, so impressed by the monster fruits wrapped in green tissue and golden foil.

Winters in Portugal and southern Spain are decidedly different. Last weekend while visiting friends, I woke early one morning to enjoy a gap between the rains. I wandered through the small garden, full of succulents and flowers with all the wild colors and shapes of novelty lights on a string. I ran my hands through the rosemary and sage growing in wild bunches, and noted a patch of lemongrass we might split and take home with us.

I passed the lemon tree, giving the branches a shake–the yellow bullets and bulbous orbs held fast. But under the orange trees lay a windfall, literally dozens of split fruit turning to compost on the ground. Not to worry: The tree still held an outrageous bounty. And these were no meagre examples–the recent rain had swollen some of them to a softball size. I picked up the rotting ones on the gravel to toss away, then turned back to the tree with a basket ready.

With a gentle prodding, the ripest ones fell easily, and with minor effort I had two dozen ready to peel and eat. That I did right there, the bumpy skin stubborn in some places, leaving my hands sticky with juice. Timmae nosed a fallen one around on the ground before picking it up in her mouth and trotting off. She would chase it like the ball it was, if someone would only throw it her way. The rest of my harvest went to happy hour.

Yes, some like their oranges squeezed into breakfast juice, but this new luxury of plentiful citrus made me want something more decadent. This time of year (late February, early March) in much of Iberia, the trees hang heavily with lemons and oranges along every boulevard, in back of every house with a square meter of land. They roll down onto our town beach, Praia das Maçãs–in lieu of the beach’s namesake apples this time of year. They’re captured into compotes and candied peels for next winter’s festas–or put up for as long as they’ll last in cold storage.

I preserve lemons in a big glass jar using a basic Mediterranean/North African recipe, by cutting them longwise into halves, squeezing the juice into the jar, then massaging them with some coarse sea salt (also practically free here, less than 50 cents a half kilo) and packing them into the jar, covering them with more lemon juice. I store them in the fridge, where they keep for months (they take a month to “cure” before you can use them).

But what to do with the oranges? I broke off a few branches of rosemary and put them to steep in a saucepan over low heat with sugar and water until the mix reduced into a fragrant syrup. Meanwhile, I set to the brilliantly simple motorized citrus juicer with a pile of halved oranges. For the six of us, the two dozen oranges were about right to make the following happy hour, what I call “Sunshine in March.”

“Sunshine in March” (Orange & Gin Cocktails)

Luz de Sol em Março (Cocktails de Laranja e Gin)

2 sprigs rosemary

1/2 cup moscovado or other dark sugar

1 cup water

2 dozen oranges

Gin to taste (at least 9 ounces for 6 servings)

  1. Steep rosemary in a mix of sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium heat until reduced into a thin syrup, about 15 minutes. Allow to cool in the fridge or freezer as needed.
  2. Squeeze juice from oranges using juicer or press.
  3. Pour gin over ice in highball glasses, using 1 1/2 oz gin per glass plus 4 ice cubes.
  4. Add 2 tablespoons rosemary syrup.
  5. Pour over orange juice to taste and stir. Garnish with fresh rosemary sprig if desired.