February is here, and that must mean it’s orange season in Sicily! And what orange is more Sicilian than the famous blood orange! The Arance Rosse (Italian for blood oranges) of Sicily are known worldwide for their distinctive red pulp, but did you know that this particular variety of orange has the highest Vitamin C content in the entire citrus family? Similar to the origin of lemons here, it is most likely that the orange appeared in Sicily during the time of the Arab rule during the 9th and 10th centuries. Since that time, the Sicilians have perfected the art of orange growing, and the world is a happier place for it!
Why do blood oranges grow in Sicily?
Although many orange varieties, including some blood oranges, grow in other parts of Sicily, the blood orange is almost exclusively grown in the area known as Piana di Catania, or the plain of Catania. The rich volcanic soil around Mount Etna combined with the unique climate of the area are the magic ingredients that create the unique coloring effect and antioxidant qualities of the blood orange. If you want to get technical, it is the contrast between the cold weather on Mount Etna and the warm sun of the island that creates something called a thermal excursion, (no, this does not mean a day trip to the spa) which produces the red pigmentation due to a substance called anthocyanin.
But let’s get back to why we’re here. I’ve been living in the Catania area for about four months now, and have been waiting with bated breath for winter to arrive so I could witness the glorious appearing of blood oranges at the local markets. And that time is finally here!
There are three types of blood oranges in Sicily. This is interesting to me, because the number three seems to be a common theme here. If you’ve read my Sicilian lemon post, then you know that there are three types of lemons here as well! The Trinacria, a three legged being symbolizing fertility, is also the symbol for Sicily and resembles the triangular shape of the island. The symbol can be found on table tops, in tile work, and on wall hangings in many traditional Sicilian homes. But today we are here to talk about oranges. So here is everything you need to know about the queen of all oranges, known as the red gold of Sicily, the Sicilian blood orange.
Blood Orange Varieties
The Moro orange usually ripens first, between December and February. It has a slightly oval shape with a reddish color on the peel. It has dark red pulp, which has a sweet and slightly tart taste. This makes it perfect for snacking or for use in salads, and also for juicing! Who wants a glass of freshly squeezed Moro Orange Juice?
The Tarocco makes its appearance from December to April, but can be found most often in February when it’s at its peak. It also seems to be the most widely used variety of Arancia Rossa, and the one I see most often at the markets here. Possibly because of its cute round shape, sweet taste, and ease in peeling. I love oranges, but hate it when I get orange peel all up under my fingernails! The cool thing about the Tarooco is that as it gets colder and snow starts to appear on Mount Etna, it becomes more and more red. Remember the thermal excursion we learned about earlier?
Due to its popularity, the Tarocco is commonly used to make marmalades, sauces, desserts, and of course, cocktails! I picked up some amazing blood orange marmalade at a shop called Tasting Sicily in Graniti, which by the way, has a website where you can order products. But it’s also the perfect excuse for a trip to Sicily! If you find yourself here and are in search of a unique and quick day trip from Catania, Graniti should be at the top of your list. It’s cobbled streets and urban art will steal your heart!
The reddest of all blood oranges, the Sanguigno (or Sanguinello) reaches its peak in February, but can be found as late as April. It is seedless and has a dark red pulp that almost looks like it’s been soaked in red wine. Speaking of Sangria, the Sanguigno is extremely juicy, which makes it perfect for drinking on its own, or for use in such delicious concoctions as Sangria and other fruity drinks. Due to its extremely high nutritional value, juice from the Sanguigno is an excellent recovery drink for those who play sports. Probably best to choose a non-alcoholic version for this use.
One of my favorite ways to use the Sanguigno is to make sweetened dehydrated slices. They make a gorgeous cocktail garnish, and a sweet little treat for when you are finished drinking your favorite orange flavored cocktail!
Celebrating the Blood Orange
If you really want to immerse yourself in all things blood orange related, come to Sicily and experience a Sagra dell’arancia rossa (Blood Orange Festival). A Sagra is a festival held by a town or village dedicated entirely to food. Now that’s my kind of festival! Here are a few I have my eye on.
Every year during the last week of February, Palagonia, a town to the southwest of Catania, holds a festival where you can wander the streets and give in to every orange craving you have by tasting local delicacies made with the famous fruit. I found several vendors with blood oranges from Palagonia at one of the markets in Catania! They were all so sweet and yummy!
In March, you can go to Centuripe, just an hour northwest of Catania on the slopes of Mount Etna. Here you can taste food and drink specialities made with the popular Tarocco variety and experience a celebration of Sicilian folk traditions, music and culture, culminating in a “Blessing of the Oranges”.
Obviously these festivals may not happen in 2021, but the good thing is I don’t think Sicily's blood oranges are going anywhere, and neither am I!
Thanks for reading, I hope I have you dreaming of Sicilian oranges now! If you have a taste for more of Sicily's flavors, check out this post on it's delicious lemons!
Can't get enough of Sicily? Read more about my adventures here!