food, history and art – some ruminations by Fredrika Jacobs

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ORANGE: the fruit

MELANGOLE: defined in John Florio’s Italian/English dictionary of 1611 as “a kind of Citron or lymon.”


Wednesday, March 5 is approaching and with it comes the beginning of the Lenten season of 2014 and the start of a conscious abstention of pleasurable indulgences that includes delectable delights! But before this meditative 40-day period of self-sacrifice and deprivation gets going opposite behaviors are given free rein.
During Carnival (Fastnacht in German; Mardi Gras in French; Carnaval in Spanish; Carnevale in Italian) revelry is unleashed and with the anonymity that comes with the donning of a mask revelers can indulge to excess. No wonder that the people of Genoa call the sweet fried pastries associated with this time of year “le bugie” or little lies! (The sweet has other names in other locales: “chiacchiere” in Lombardy, “frappe” in Emilia, “cenci” in Tuscany, etc.)

There is however another food that has a distinctive presence in the cultural history of this season… at least in the Piedmont town of Ivrea: the ORANGE.

Every year as Carnival slides into Lent, the town of Ivrea stages the Battle of the Oranges. Although the rather murky origins of this festival point to a “droit de seigneur” (when the lord of the manor claims first-night sexual rights from a bride-to-be) as the incident that gave rise to the celebratory ‘battle,’ the truth is that ‘combat’ was an essential component of Carnival. Hidden behind a mask, a commoner could mock the nobility and gendered norms could be up-ended. It makes sense then that a Battle of Oranges marks the point of oppositions: the time when self-indulgence is transformed into abstinence and vice is replaced virtuous behaviors.


Oranges seem particularly appropriate to this staged combat since oranges are not always orange. Some are green! Thus, like a mask, the orange can have a deceptive appearance!

Ivre's Battle of Oranges

Ivre’s Battle of Oranges


IVREA’S Battle of Oranges, in which teams hurl tons of oranges at one another, has been going on in some form since, it seems, the late 12th century. Here is what happens:

“The core celebration… involves some thousands of townspeople, divided into nine combat teams, who throw oranges at each other – with considerable violence – during the traditional carnival days: Sunday, Monday and Tuesday…. It [the battle] ends on the night of “Fat Tuesday” with a solemn funeral. Traditionally, at the end of the silent march that closes the carnival the ‘General’ says goodbye to everyone with the classical phrase in dialect ‘arvedse a giobia a ‘n bot’, translated as ‘we’ll see each other on Thursday at one’, referring to the Thursday the carnival will start the next year.”
In “Celebrating Italy. The Tastes and Traditions of Italy” (pages 344-45) Carole Field adds this:
“Five piazze in the medieval section of town become combat zones. They are guarded by two teams of two-three hundred foot soldiers called “arancieri” [oranges], who wait to do battle with other warriors passing through on thirty or more horse draw carts.” Ten helmeted and well-armored men occupy each cart. Oranges are hurled and catapulted in every direction.
For those who wish to attend this year’s event, follow the link:

Website: http://www.carnevalediivrea.it/


Compared to the lemon, which was cultivated by the ancient Romans, the orange was slow to take root in Italian soil. In arrived in Sicily only in the 10th century through the efforts of Arabs. By the 14th century, the “bigarades,” or Seville or bitter orange, had become a plant within the patrician garden and a valued ingredient of late Gothic cookery. The treasured ornamental “bigardes” of Eleanor of Castile, Queen of Navarre, (after 1363-1416) was nurtured for centuries. In 1522, Eleanor’s orange tree made its way to Fontainbleau. From there it went to Versailles, where it grew until 1858.

In 16th century cuisine the orange appears most often as an addition: specifically its juice, which was combined with spices such as cinnamon and cloves to make sauces.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was apparently fond of the juice and of the orange peel. In his voluminous life of the lexicographer, James Boswell reports one of Johnson’s “peculiarities.”
“It seems he had been frequently observed at the Club to put into his pocket the Seville oranges, after he had squeezed the juice from them into the drink which he made for himself.” (Boswell, II: 330) Much scholarly ink has been used in trying to explain what the pocketed orange peels were used for.
For my part, I prefer to simply remember how my father would adroitly peel an orange and present me with the unbroken spiral… a wondrous thing.