Sicilian oranges: varieties, health benefits and traditional recipes

    Arance siciliane sia bionde che rosse disposte su un tavolo

    Sicilian oranges are commonly acknowledged as the best quality that this extraordinary fruit can offer. It is a question of the perfect combination of climate, soil and people. In some instances, the environmental conditions are unique, such as those in the Piana di Catania (Plain of Catania). The history of this extraordinary fruit has been intertwined with that of Sicily for centuries and, even today, there are many elements that bear witness to this bond. If you go to Pantelleria, you will discover the poetry of the “Giardino Pantesco” (Pantellerian garden). It consists of a small stone wall that the islanders built around a single, very precious citrus plant to protect it from the strong wind that never fails to blow on the island. In Terrasini, a small town in Palermo province, a bitter orange tree is the star of the town’s main event, the Festa di li Schietti (Feast of single boys). Not to mention the important role this fruit plays in Sicilian cuisine, particularly in desserts. In Modica, for example, a very old dessert, Aranciata, is still made almost exclusively from orange peel. In this article, you will learn all about Sicilian oranges, their varieties, their health benefits and how they are used in Sicilian cooking.

    Classifying Sicilian oranges

    Sicilian oranges can be sweet or bitter

    It is perhaps not widely known that in addition to the common orange, the one we are all used to (Citrus sinensis), there is also a bitter version or Citrus × aurantium. Both of these varieties originate from China and are said to be descended, like all citrus fruits, from the pomelo tree. Contrary to popular belief, the first variety to take hold in Sicily was the bitter variety. The Arabs used these trees to decorate gardens and palaces, eradicating the cultivation of vines as the wine they produced was forbidden in their religion. Sweet oranges were not produced until the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The Portuguese and Genoese traders were the first to import this fruit from the East. During the 16th century, cultivation of this new fruit spread successfully throughout the Mediterranean.

    Blonde Sicilian oranges and pigmented or red oranges

    Alberi di arance in Sicilia con il vulcano Etna sullo sfondo

    Oranges are divided into two main categories according to the colour of their flesh: blonde oranges and pigmented or red oranges. Blonde oranges are certainly the most popular and, also, the ones most used in industry because they have a high juice yield and are not very bitter. Blonde oranges include the Navel, the Valencia and the Oval or Calabrian orange. There are varieties in which the presence of particular pigments gives the fruit a typical red colour and which are, therefore, also known as pigmented. This can happen, for example, when a pigment called lycopene, the same pigment found in tomatoes, is present, as in the case of the Vanilla Sanguinello variety. Or it can also be due to the presence of other types of pigments, such as anthocyanins. In the case of Sicilian blood oranges, the wide temperature range typical of the Piana di Catania, where they are grown, causes anthocyanins to develop and thus give them their traditional red colour. During the night, currents of cold air flow from Etna towards the valley. During the day, however, the hot Sicilian sun kicks in. The greater the temperature range, the redder these oranges will be. There are three common varieties of Sicilian red orange: Moro, Tarocco and Sanguinello. Within each of these categories there are several varieties.

    Oranges with and without navels

    The term “navel” refers to the human belly button. When talking about oranges, navel refers to a generic variety whose fruit has a sort of belly button. This is a syncarpous phenomenon, i.e., the formation of a second fruit at the opposite end to the stalk. For this reason, navel oranges are also called “umbilicate”. This variety of orange was discovered by chance during the first half of the 19th century in a Benedictine monastery in San Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. Here, a spontaneous genetic mutation in a bitter orange tree had led to the formation of an orange bud. The sprout was first transplanted to California and from there quickly spread around the world to Sicily. Navels include many orange varieties with very different characteristics, such as the New Hall, Washington Navel, Lanelate and Powell Summer Navel.

    The main varieties of Sicilian oranges

    tante fette di arance rosse siciliane

    Washington Navel

    This variety of Navel oranges is so-called because the first grafts arrived in Sicily from the United States. The fruits have a juicy, seedless blonde pulp. Washington Navel oranges differ from other Sicilian varieties because they have a more sugary and less acidic flavour, expressing a perfect balance between aroma and taste.

    Ripening periodfrom the end of December to March

    Newhall Orange

    Newhall oranges are medium to large in size and can weigh up to 200 g. The fruit is oval in shape with a medium-thick skin and a dark orange to red colour, especially at peak ripeness. These oranges can be eaten whole or squeezed.

    Ripening period: from November to March

    Thompson oranges

    As the name suggests, Thompson oranges are apparently an American variety. The fruit is elliptical in shape and usually weighs between 180 and 200 g. They are late bloomers as the harvest starts in January and, if the weather conditions allow, can continue until April. The pulp is quite firm, seedless and has a decent juice content. Thompson oranges are very rich in flavonoids and polyphenols and are also highly digestible.

    Ripening period: from January to March/April

    Navel Late Oranges

    Navel Late is a relatively new native Sicilian variety. In fact, it originated as a bud mutation from another very popular variety on the island, Washington Navel. The name reflects the two main characteristics of these oranges, namely that they are “umbilicate” (navel) oranges and a late variety. Ripening begins in February and, in optimal climatic conditions, can last until May. Navel Late oranges are seedless, have a sweet and balanced taste and, thanks to the thin coating on the segments, have a fairly crunchy texture.

    Oval or Calabrese

    The Ovale or Calabrese variety of oranges is also late ripening. They usually start in March and April and can last until May. Cultivation of these oranges in Sicily is mainly found along certain rivers in the province of Messina. The fruit has a typical oval shape and is juicy and flavourful with considerable thirst-quenching properties. Owing to their pleasing balance of sweet and sour, these oranges are particularly suited to the preparation of homemade desserts.

    Ripening periodfrom March/April to May

    Belladonna oranges

    Belladonna oranges ripen in late winter and early spring. They have a very sweet taste and a skin that is not too thick. The juice yield can be as high as 50%, which is why they are often used in industry to make jams and marmalades. They are also known as “San Giuseppe oranges” or “Tsar’s oranges” because they were particularly popular with the Romanoff dynasty.

    Ripening periodfrom February to April/May


    In addition to being present in Sicily, the Valencia variety is also one of the most widespread in the world, especially in South America and California. Valencia oranges are noted for their ability to adapt to different climatic conditions. For this reason and because of the very late harvest, they are a popular variety with growers. In Sicily, the harvest takes place in March and April, while in other regions, it can last until June. The clones Campbell Nucellare, Midknight and Delta stem from this variety.

    Ripening period: March/April


    Tarocco oranges are amongst the most popular Sicilian orange varieties in the world. They belong to the pigmented varieties and seem to have originated from a bud mutation of another blood orange variety, the Sanguinello. They were discovered in the late 19th century in Francofonte, a small town in the province of Syracuse, by the farmer and merchant, Gesualdo Denaro. There are several clones of Tarocco oranges: Tarocco Comune, Tarocco Galice, Tarocco Gallo, Tarocco Messina, Tarocco dal Muso, Tarocco Catania, Tarocco Scirè, and so on. In addition to the ease with which it can be peeled, the success of this type of orange is due to its very interesting sweet and sour flavour, which is the result of its high but balanced sugar and acid content. Tarocco oranges can be eaten in wedges, but also have an excellent juice yield of up to 40%. They are also used in the traditional “portualli salad” and in the preparation of delicious blood orange preserves.

    Ripening periodfrom December to January


    This variety was discovered in Spain in the late 1920s. Sanguinello oranges begin to ripen around February and are at their best in spring. They are blood oranges with a sweet flavour and a slightly acidic note. They are very juicy and have very few seeds and low acidity. The name refers to the colour of the flesh and abroad they are known as “blood oranges”. In the past, this particular colouring was a major obstacle to the export of these and all blood oranges because they were considered to be of poor quality.

    Ripening period: from February to April


    Moro oranges are a variety that originated in the area of Lentini, in the province of Syracuse, and later spread to the areas around Catania and Syracuse. There are also various clones of these varieties, such as Moro comune, Moro di Lentini and Moro nucellare 58-8D-1. Of the blood orange varieties, this is the one that ripens first. They are ready at the beginning of December and can remain on the tree until February. The fruit has a mild acidity and the flavour is sweet and very long-lasting. The juice yield is also very good.

    Ripening period from December to February

    Bitter orange

    The bitter orange is also known by the name “Melangolo”. This fruit has a very strong acidity and a juice with bitter and salty notes. For these reasons, the variety is not eaten in its natural state but is used in food preparation, to make liqueurs (as in the case of Amara) and for making preserves and candied fruit. Nutritionally, these oranges are rich in “synephrine”, a substance that stimulates the metabolism. The most common use of bitter oranges, however, is in the perfume industry due to the high concentration of aromatic essential oils in the peel and flowers. Orange blossom water is made from these.

    Vanilla Orange

    Another uncommon variety, like the bitter orange, but for the opposite reason. This type of orange is very sweet, too sweet for most consumers, with a typical hint of vanilla and broom flowers. This variety of oranges is the only one in the world with very low acidity. This is why it is particularly suitable for those suffering from gastric, intestinal and hepatic disorders. Furthermore, despite a very sweet taste, this fruit contains a very low amount of sugar. The variety that is grown in Ribera, which is not readily available in shops, is part of the Slow Food Foundation’s Ark of Taste.

    Sicilian Oranges Quality labels

    Arance di Ribera PDO

    In Sicily, the orange has found its happy island. A perfect combination of climate, soil and people. Some areas, like the Piana di Catania, for example, have a unique microclimate. Of the three quality labels currently in place for Italian oranges, two are from Sicily: Arancia di Ribera PDO  and Arancia Rossa di Sicilia PGI. The blonde orange from Scillato is one of the traditional Sicilian agri-food products recognised by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forestry and, as already mentioned, the Vanilla Orange from Ribera is part of Slow Food’s Ark of Taste. Ribera PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) oranges come from an area that includes municipalities in the province of Agrigento (Bivona, Burgio, Calamonaci, Caltabellotta, Cattolica Eraclea, Cianciana, Lucca Sicula, Menfi, Montallegro, Ribera, Sciacca, Siculiana and Villafranca Sicula), plus the municipality of Chiusa Sclafani, which belongs to the province of Palermo. There are only three varieties of oranges that can bear the Arancia di Ribera PDO mark: Brasiliano, Washington Navel and Navelina.

    Arancia Rossa di Sicilia PGI

    The Arancia Rossa di Sicilia PGI (Sicilian Blood Oranges – Protected Geographical Indication) label is awarded to fruit grown in an area that includes several towns in the provinces of Catania, Enna and Syracuse. The trademark protects the Tarocco variety (and clones: Tarocco Comune, Tarocco Galice, Tarocco Gallo, Tarocco Messina, Tarocco dal Muso, Tarocco Nucellare 57-IE-1, Tarocco Nucellare 61-1E-4, Tarocco Catania, Tarocco Scirè, Tarocco rosso), Moro (and clones Moro Comune, Moro Nucellare 58-8D-l) and the Sanguinello variety (with clones Sanguinello Comune, Sanguinello Moscato, Sanguinello Moscato Nucellare 49-5-3, Sanguinello Moscato Nucellare 49-5-5, Sanguinello Moscato Cuscunà).

    The health benefits of Sicilian oranges

    Oranges are very rich in nutraceutical properties and can be a powerful ally in preventing flu symptoms in particular. All varieties of oranges are very rich in vitamin C and, therefore, help to strengthen the immune system. For this reason, nutritionists recommend eating four oranges a day, which corresponds to 200 mg of vitamin C. Be warned, however, that oranges have a preventive function, not a curative one. If you already have a cold, it is too late.

    Health benefits of Sicilian Blood Oranges

    Sicilian Blood Oranges IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica – Typical Geographical Indication) also have other important properties. As mentioned before, their red colour is due to the presence of anthocyanins, which are very useful substances for the body and have important properties such as antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-ageing and anti-free radical capabilities. In combination with vitamin C, they help renew the skin’s collagen, slow down the ageing of cells and improve the elasticity of blood vessels. Orange segments are also rich in fibre and therefore aid intestinal transit. In addition, it seems that the albedo, the white part between the skin and the pulp, can lower cholesterol levels in the blood.

    Culinary uses for Sicilian oranges

    Oranges can be used in both savoury and sweet recipes. A classic way of using oranges in a savoury recipe is by using the juice to create a sweet and sour flavour, as with duck à l’orange. Each variety of orange has its own organoleptic characteristics that can be more or less suitable for the dish you want to prepare. In salads, the best orange varieties are Tarocco and Moro, i.e., blood oranges. Blonde oranges, on the other hand, go well with fish and the sweet and sour flavours of braised meat. The Tarocco Comune is good for meat sauces and the Moro for strong-flavoured meats, like horse meat. In sweet recipes, orange peel is widely used to flavour cakes and biscuits, as well as making excellent candied fruit and preserves.

    Traditional Sicilian recipes based on oranges

    In traditional Sicilian cuisine, there are some recipes where the orange plays a leading role. The first is obviously the insalata di arance (orange salad) or the insalata di pottualli. There are different versions, some adding fennel, some adding olives and others adding anchovies. Just as there are different versions of another iconic Sicilian dish: Sarde a Beccafico (Sicilian stuffed sardines). In the Palermo area, they use orange juice in the filling, along with breadcrumbs, sultanas and pine nuts. In Modica, they make Aranciata, which is an ancient sweet recipe of Arab origin. It is a kind of nougat made from orange peel. A very special recipe can be found in a book by the great Sicilian cooking guru, Giuseppe Coria. In his book “Profumi di Sicilia” (Scents of Sicily), the author has transcribed an old recipe called Sparaci co Portuallu. This recipe combines asparagus with a sauce made of butter, eggs, vinegar and orange juice.

    Recipes from Sicilian chef, Carmelo Chiaramonte

    The “no longer wandering” chef, Carmelo Chiaramonte, has dedicated an entire book to the Orange, written together with Professor Elvira Assenza. In addition to some ingenious creations by the chef, the book also contains some very interesting traditional recipes. The first is “Carciofo ai Quattro Succhi” (Artichoke with Four Sauces). This is a recipe that uses orange, lemon and mandarin juices and white wine vinegar. Another interesting recipe is Funciddi di Buccheri. These biscuits are so named because their shape resembles an upside-down mushroom and they are made by grinding together roasted nuts and dried orange peel. Another traditional sweet recipe is Candied Orange Peel, half-glazed with chocolate. A very delicious way to end a meal.

    Sergio Campolo

    I graduated in Economics and Management in Rome, I worked for 6 years in Milan especially in Web Marketing and now I live in Trento. In 2021 I founded The World of Sicily with the aim of making the beauties of this region known to the whole world.

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