Walking the Camino Francés, Naranja is on my path, growing not so far on the Costa Del Sol. So I trade my Canadian apple for the fruit that shines in the Mediterranean winter. Its sweet juicy bounty has nothing to do with the fist-size Sunkist that survives the rides from California to Whitehorse; or the predictable taste of countless Mexican boxes of clementines that entertained my childhood Christmas in Québec.
I find Orange again in my snowy backyard in the mountains of Crete. She shows up as enduring bursts of colour to remind me that across the Lybian sea, cold nights bear the promise of 20 degrees afternoons. Here she goes by πορτοκάλι.
But the tree I dare to harvest gives the bitter fruits of Citrus aurantium. I step back, puzzled. “How do I know you’re ripe?”, I ask. The tree doesn’t blink, its fruits splattered in the streets.
Shading a deserted monastery on top of a hill, the dark-orange fruit tree welcomes me again, cheerfully. I greet it back with a grimace, as I suck its juice tarter than a lemon, marveling at the new taste. “How do I know you’re ripe?”, I ask again. This time, I can almost hear a mocking laugh in the rustling of the leaves.
In a traditional Cretan restaurant, a man serves me soup of wheat and mutton fat, and brings the bill with a saucerful of orange marmalade. I smile at the overly sweet and bitter candy. More mysteries of burnt orange hues.
At the farmer’s market where I look for green vegetables, I get lost in piles of bright sweet sunshine, huge and tiny balls of orange light, sweetest of the sweetest. I gather heavy bags of oranges, 40 cents a kilo. I eat more citrus than my body recalls ever eating. I refill my vitamin C supply. “How do I know you’re ripe?”, I keep asking.
The oranges of Spain and Greece are kindling my fireless winter, but they still play tricks on me. Who are they? What songs do they sing under the southern European sun? I have yet to be introduced properly.
It’s the last harvest of spring that finally calls my encounter with the tangy fruit spirit. It happens when I land unexpectedly in a citrus grove on the South Aegean Coast of Turkey. I will be taught by 200 trees. Akin to their greek neighbours, they are named Portakal.
On my first morning at the farm, a volunteer from Portugal squeezes an orange juice welcome. “You’ve picked wild oranges again!” says the Turkish volunteer to him, as he looks through the pile of freshly harvested fruits. I come closer, intrigued. “I really can’t tell the difference”, the volunteer replies. I smile, pick a dark orange ball and bring it to my nostrils, inhaling deeply.
Citrus aurantium, the bitter orange! “They’re disgusting!” adds the Turkish volunteer. “We make marmalade with them.” He leaves us at it. “How do I know you’re ripe?”, I laugh silently. Of course! Orange Spirit had to first come to me in its wildest form! Now everything makes sense.
The Portuguese volunteer fills my glass with the very local juice. No big deal for him – the Mediterranean oranges are named after his country. But to me, with my home fruit trees buried in feet of snow, I watch the whole tangerine spectrum glitter in the spring light with delight. I take my first sip… heaven from this land.
Then, I scavenge. Shoulders bare to the sun and straw hat for the shade, I browse through invasive sorrel and mallow, stinging nettle and mullein to pick and sort the oranges on the ground. The few left in the trees have already been sold to local vendors. But as they fall with the weight of beautiful ripeness, they are freed from this ownership. I find them hidden in tall grass, warmth blazing out of the green.
I empty loads to the compost and crates to the outdoor kitchen.
Nice and firm, soft, speckled, moldy, rotten, half-eaten by the grazing gangsters on wandering duty.
Hens, roosters and turkeys are my scavenging competitors.
I keep going back to this exciting treasure hunt.
My dreams are Orange. Blood Orange, Lemon and Mandarin. Juice Orange, Bitter Orange, Grapefruit and Clementine.
My body taps into the slightest difference in shape, texture, scent and color.
I embrace the variety of them, big and small, all mixed up. Orange yellow rainbow of biodiversity. Organic, of course.
I didn’t know what sweet and sour meant before. I can tell you now – it is not a Chinese sauce. It is ORANGE, pure fresh zing. The last bits of explosive sour medicine to cheer up the numbness of winter. Pick, juice and burn. You are drinking fire.
I walk in the dewy grove, my steps surveying the early morning vibrations.
Palms up in the tree, I cup the hard boobs dangling above me and test their softness, pulling gently on the stem. “How do I know you’re ripe?”, I try one more time. “Come on”, the annoyed Orange replies. “I’m a fruit. I come to you.”
“I’ve never picked oranges before… the only orchard I know is apple!”, I reply defensively. Orange blurts out: “Apple!”, laughing loudly. She says, “Good” and sends a spurt of acid juice straight into my third eye. Gotta get used to her sense of humour. I’m still a bit puzzled, but giving in.
She sits in my hand, her weight and softness, aphrodisiac scent tickling me. I sink my nails in her skin and she squirts her perfumed venom. Juice drips along my wrist into my sleeve. I suckle the orange half peeled, pure sugar and sour decadence. I bite the seed, spit and look up. The tree shows off its Christmas balls as the branches flutter and wriggle in the breeze. My nostrils catch the sharp sizzling whiffs of orange zest hovering around me. Fingers sticky with the dried juice, I take the last bite. Holy gift. Better than my childhood clementines.
I moan, grateful for the teachings of Orange. This winter on the Mediterranean has been a blast in my sacral chakra, a tangerine sun spinning up. It’s moving up, throbbing into my summer solar plexus. I moan, and burst out laughing.
Who came up with the idea that the apple was the forbidden fruit anyway?