I left my hometown of Tucson decades ago; until my recent return, I lived in Spain where the springtime aroma of flor de azahar (orange blossom) wafts sweetly through ancient streets, permeating layers of time and culture—from the gardens of Al Andalus, where it symbolizes innocence, to the poetry of Lorca, who likened the woes of lost love to the pure white petals carried away by the Guadalquivir to the sea.
Citrus x aurantium made its way across the Atlantic to the New World on Spanish colonial sailing vessels. It thrived so well in the Southwest that, during my childhood in Tucson, what we call the Seville orange was as ubiquitous as the mesquite is now. Since xeriscaping has come into vogue, these citrus trees have been increasingly neglected, the aging specimens are rarely if ever replaced; their fruits are now widely considered inedible. Nonetheless, the hardy relatives of the naranjos first introduced into the Southwest three centuries ago by Jesuit missionaries are not only edible, but also have exceptional medicinal qualities, particularly their calming effect in the form of orange-blossom tea.
To me, Tucson has many allures, but among the strongest Proustian sensorial relationships I have with this place is that provoked by my “dear ol’ dad’s” sour-orange marmalade. Way back when, he purchased Dundee, a marmalade brand from Scotland (likely taste-memory in his case as well, since he is of Scottish decent) until, at a foreign-foods club gathering, he met a Scottish lady who gave him this recipe. He started gleaning the oranges at the university where he worked, bringing them home little by little on his bike, but eventually discovered that a few of our closest neighbors had sour oranges of which they were happy to be deprived. If you have any neighbors like these, and don’t have a dear ol’ dad like mine to provide you with a steady supply of marmalade, I strongly suggest you follow this recipe.
Thoroughly scrub 2 pounds of sour oranges. Cut them into quarters, retaining all the seeds. Put them, plus 5 cups of water and 6 tablespoons of lemon juice, into a pressure cooker. Cook at 10 pounds pressure for 10 minutes. Cool the cooker immediately under running water. Strain the liquid into a container. Scrape off the seeds and tough central fibers from the orange quarters. Slice, dice, chop, or add to the liquid and put in blender or food processor to render the quarters into appropriate-sized pieces. Stir 4 pounds of sugar into the liquid and orange bits mixture. Boil gently until your preferred color and consistency are reached, then pour or ladle into jars. The jars don’t have to be sealed or refrigerated after opening, as the high acidity seems to repel both molds and bacteria. Just tighten the lids enough to prevent dehydration.
Ever since I can remember, he has been making a big batch of it every January to slather generously on toasted slices of his freshly baked homemade whole-wheat sourdough bread. (But that’s another story.)
The Seville orange trees growing in Mission Garden’s Kino Heritage Fruit Trees orchard on the site of Tucson’s birthplace at the foot of Sentinel Peak (A Mountain) are meaningful to me in many more ways than one. Indeed, they were grown from seed by my partner, Jesús García, the director of the Kino Heritage Fruit Trees Project. He collected the fruits years ago near his home in Miles, where I happened to go to elementary school, and must have inadvertently sensed the aromas that were already writing my destiny.
Dena Cowan is a writer, translator, videographer, and gardener. She works for Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace, Mission Garden. Mirage-In-The-Desert.com