Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Bitter Orange

Weddings – pallid, repetitious – happen beneath the orange blossom, but bitter births, the ballads tell us, happen beneath the thorn. Bitter births, no two the same, stubborn shovings into the world, the sharp, bright reminders of forced or lost or hopeless love. We have a tree in our small, bricked garden, a tree of just such beginnings. Out of place, wrong, transplanted – it spites the odds, withstanding the wrong climate with a sort of belligerence. It is a gnomish orange tree, and it has blossom, thorn and fruit. The trunk is tripartite; it grows into and out of itself again, three separate trunks fused ominously together. And the leaves are three-part too. Poncirus trifoliata: a three-leaved citrus. The ghostly and scentless blossoms drift across the tree not once but twice a year, mistakenly, a way of coping with alien seasons. They come first in early spring, against the black mesh of thorny branches, then again in late spring, against a bright and poison green. The thorns are two inches long and dagger–sharp. And the fruit that comes – sometimes later, sometimes intermingled with its flower – is hard, round, sure and vehemently orange. But for all their hardness the oranges are covered in a light down – “pubescent,” say the botanists – and it’s true that they crowd the tree with a kind of adolescent feeling; social, often mottled, precipitate. The rush to fruit clutters the tree with eager masses and desperate outliers, and when they fall they rain down hard, careless of where they roll.

Most trees grow around us without benefit of narrative, but the strangeness of this tree has preserved the story of its origin. We bought our moody slice of house from a young French teacher named Michael, who had lived in the house for three years before he fell in love with a Montreal patriot who refused to come south, and demanded that Michael emigrate. With a certain urgency, Michael told us about the woman from whom he had bought - Miss Polly, who had been born in the house and lived there 90 years until she upped sticks to move in with the daughter-in-law widowed by her son. There were three things of Miss Polly’s that he was leaving with us, Michael said. The first two he had found in the attic crawlspace. A splintering frame containing a porous, elderly print of St. Anthony, the saint of lost things and lost causes. And another frame holding Miss Polly’s 1943 beauty school certificate. This diploma attests to Miss Polly’s training in “Scalp and Hair Treatment, and Beauty Culture.” Mary Pressley Norman, it declares in cursive, “is a competent operator in Marcel Waving, Water Waving, Finger Waving, Round Curling, Hair Dressing, Hand Moulding, Electrical Appliances, Sanitation and Sterilization, Anatomy and Skin Bleaching.” Miss Polly, Michael told us, didn’t care about the two framed guarantees. We could do with them as we wished. But the third thing – the third thing we must protect.

The third thing was the tree. No-one, she asked, should ever take an axe to her orange tree. From years of discipline, of Marcel and Water Waving, of Hand Moulding and Skin Bleaching, she had saved money for a trip to Jamaica. When she returned, she smuggled back in her hand luggage three small, green, thorny sproutings from her paradise. Somehow they reached toward the distant, cold Philadelphia sun, melded and survived. Old houses bear the marks of their travails. Our house is made of little rooms and passages that break the simple rectangle up into interlocking spaces, scarred from old leaks, the cracked paint of previous lives heaving beneath the clean new coats. Dark, textured by old paper, plaster, dented woodwork, bead and board and porcelain; our house has a whiff of the sinister. We hung Miss Polly’s certificate in the living room, its papery gold foil seal glinting in the dim light. In the dining room, St. Anthony clutches his heavy lilies and bends over the child Jesus. Their gloomy, glimmering halos blend together. And in the garden the tree lifts its crown of thorns, bright with oranges.

We have now lived alongside this tree for three years. Two Octobers came and went, twice the oranges hurled themselves like suicidal teenage lovers from their thorny branches. Twice I swept them in their hundreds under the garden door, where they were squashed by passing garbage trucks, or were batted down the alleyway by that year’s generation of lean and hungry feral kittens. Like the kittens, I am a scavenger. I fill my pockets with unidentifiable nuts found on walks, and have been known to steal the decorative kale out from under party platters, smuggle it home and feast upon it steamed,sautéed and stewed. But for two years these oranges in all their abundance failed to tempt me. I’d found some hints here and there that you could make marmalade out of them, but . . . you can make marmalade out of old boots if you smother them in sugar and boil til dead. Dry and hard, Miss Polly’s oranges were the bright emblem of her dedication to the sinewy goals of survival and beauty. There was none of the yielding effulgence, the lazy, juicy fulsomeness necessary for culinary pleasure.

But this year we enjoyed a long summer. The warm days stretched on and on. We went away for a month and, unobserved, the tree let down its guard. The oranges swelled beyond their usual clench, they ripened smooth and bright and taut with juice. When I stepped on one, it tore and its spill of seed and sap released a fresh, floral scent reminiscent of passion fruit. The tree was still in charge – in this year of lusciousness, it was commanding me to cook its crop.

It is the pucker of marmalade of which I am fond – there’s no point in marmalade slumped into sweetness. Marmalade is a sophisticated vice – half-kiss, half-bite. It grips the palate and pleases through severity. Which is why, of course, the English like it. It preserves the scold of the school dormitory on the breakfast plate of the civil servant. It encodes our sourness, our love of critique, our brutality, into a jar of brilliant orange. A friend of mine, a fellow-émigré, wears mostly marmalade-orange – her hair too – and I love her for it. She has plucked the English thorn from beneath the skin and learned to play with its point. For me, the thorn may be too deep. But a good marmalade reminds me that I owe a great deal to this bitterness that is both a taste and a feeling; it is a part of who I am. And making marmalade, boiling bitters, watching the bright brew quicken and shiver, watching for the setting point -- is an exercise in control and violence, in finding just that balance where the sharp limit of what is pleasing dissolves, stinging, upon the tongue.

It’s hard to explain Englishness here, in a country where a blind and saccharine Anglophilia makes idols of our worst selves. There will always be cruelties we cannot curb, so we suspend pith and peel, the orange’s protective shell, in the pressings of its own lost juices – reconvening the bitter and the sweet before we swallow it whole. Marmalade belongs to the slap of morning. Jam we use for comfort, at teatime, but marmalade hardly ever. Marmalade, along with coffee, breaks our fast through bitterness. Is this an exorcism of the night’s terrors? A hope to have faced the worst before the day begins? Or is it a philosophical affection for astringency? Astringents reassure us that we are feeling beings, let us feel the wound, but are styptic too – contracting our tissues, staunching loss.

The juice I wrung from Miss Polly’s oranges was a strange fluid. Tinged phosphor green and viscous, its scent was more flower than fruit. A waxy, lunar residue clung to my knife. I tasted a tiny sliver of rind, and even my hard-learned lessons in the benefit of bitterness failed me: it was pure wormwood and gall. Seville oranges, the traditional marmalade fruit, are prized for the particular bite of their rind, but these . . . my tongue recoiled and clove to the roof of my mouth. My source recommended repeatedly blanching the hemispheric rinds in boiling water. This, I was informed, would leach out the bitterness until its levels became tolerable. So I scalded the rinds over and over, discarding the water each time, and nibbling pieces to calibrate my progress. The bitterness, however, never even faded. It scorched my tongue and shook its fist at my efforts to quell it. Even when I became retaliatory, shredding it before submerging in the boiling water, it refused to give up its repellent powers. I’d laboured now for hours and my fingers itched to toss those iridescent shreds into my pan of hard won juice, but I knew that if I reintroduced that peel to the fragrant liquid, its charms would wither.

So I banished the peel and turned my marmalade into a jelly. It is delicious and strange, its flavour somewhat haunted – by both the tree’s sweet blossoms and the oranges' bitter rind. And its form, too, has something uncanny about it. Glassy, vapourish and possessed of a bewitching hint of the thorn.

Oh the rose of keenest thorn!
One hidden summer morn
Under the rose I was born.

I do not guess his name
Who wrought my Mother's shame,
And gave me life forlorn,
But my Mother, Mother, Mother,
I know her from all other.
My Mother pale and mild,
Fair as ever was seen,
She was but scarce sixteen,
Little more than a child,
When I was born
To work her scorn.
With secret bitter throes,
In a passion of secret woes,
She bore me under the rose.

-- Christina Rossetti


Blogger Cottage Smallholder said...

My heart leapt when I saw that you had written a post. Rare and packed with images and ideas, your words often haunt me.

You describe so well the magic of making preserves. Thank you.

4:37 am  
Blogger Scaparelli said...

My lips puckered and my tongue and toes curled at the memories of the bitter, bitter orange flavor that your new post aroused in me.

Roundin' the Cape under Cap'n Blud, us crew were forced to eat our weight in bitter orange lest we succumb to the scourge o' scurry.

And no Syllabubber to cook 'em up in jelly to give us our vittamin C sweet -- Had ya only been there, Lassy, had ya only been!

7:33 am  
Blogger Shane said...

Yes, thank you for not forsaking us!

That's quite an interesting parting gift the previous owner left you. We have been blessed by the presence of a former chicken coop in our backyard, which has made our garden patch formidably fertile.

Let us know how your holiday adventures fare, we're getting into the really good feast seaon...

10:53 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for the new post K-L - it has been a long time since Peas!

Marmelade. Like porridge and hot chocolate and whisky, I love the idea of it but just can't bring myself to enjoy the reality.

The only 'marmelade' I ever enjoyed, in fact, also came in jelly form: the rather delicious Roses lime marmelade which you may remember from stays in dingy British B&Bs and the like. It would doubless be spurned by purists as not qualifying for marmelade status due to lack of peels or indeed oranges, but I thought it was quite fine.

Toodle pip!


7:57 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ooo sorry, I meant marmalade of course. What a fine word. Doesn't it sound viscous and bubbly?

9:55 am  
Blogger Urban Forager said...

Beautiful post, in both word and image. I so covet a taste of your bittersweet nectar. I've always adored marmalade, and starting in about fourth grade I began stretching the pleasure of my lunchbox orange through the whole afternoon by furtively nibbling bits of the peel all day until the bell rang.

Have you ever held a bit of orange peel next to a lit match and folded it over so that a little bit of the oil sprays out and ignites? It's way more exciting than your average incense.

2:13 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's a thought, Kate, why not auction a pot of your marmalade or some other creation online in aid of Menu for Hope - see
for more info...


2:19 pm  
Anonymous said...

Huh, I don't think I've had the pleasure of tasting a lemon jelly, bitter or otherwise. Love the experimentation!

12:33 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I used to walk by your (unless there's another in Philly somewhere) bitter orange tree at least twice a day, fascinated by it but never knowing what it was. The urge to google it struck me, and here I find out not only its identity but a beautifully written post as well.

9:30 pm  

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