Orange trees are ubiquitous in southern Spain and Portugal. But the story of how the fruit arrived in the lands of the Camino de Santiago – and why it’s called what it is in many languages – might surprise you.
This story was originally published on Medium.
The Djemaa el-Fna, the enchanting square at the heart of Marrakesh, assaults the senses at all hours: by day, the sight of snake charmers and their hypnotised serpents and the fragrant smells of the spice stalls; by night, the sounds of traditional storytellers and beating drums under a blanket of stars.
But for all the exotic wonders of Morocco’s most famous attraction, it’s something seemingly less alluring about the square at first glance that you might end up remembering most: the orange juice.
For three dirhams (about $0.30), a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice from a stand amid the bustle of the Djemaa el-Fna is just about the best value item in all of Morocco. The sweet nectar offers delightful refreshment and a welcome — if all-too-brief — pause before you plunge back into the chaos of the old town’s alleyways.
Leaving Marrakesh and surveying the country, orange trees blend in seamlessly with their surroundings and form an indelible part of the Moroccan landscape, most charmingly at the base of the city walls of Salé, outside the capital Rabat.
Orange trees are so ubiquitous in Morocco that it’s easy to imagine they’ve been there forever as a timeless part of this ancient Mediterranean land, as old as — or older than — the country’s famous Roman ruins at Volubilis.
But they’re not.
Across the Straits of Gibraltar, rising high above the world’s largest Gothic cathedral, the stunning 12th-century Giralda tower dominates the skyline of the capital of Andalusia, once the heart of Muslim Spain.
The tower was built as a replica of the minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakesh by the Moroccan Almohad dynasty, forever intertwining these two cities. And while their paths have diverged in the eight centuries since the minarets were built, there is another thing that links the cities now: oranges.
In the late afternoon, as the Andalusian sun lights up the Giralda, shadows cover the Patio of the Orange Trees in the cathedral courtyard far below, creating a magical light that seems only possible in Andalusia.
In Seville, a breakfast of a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice served with puréed tomatoes on toasted bread is the perfect way to start the day. As in Marrakesh, the oranges are exquisite.
But it wasn’t always that way — at least, not according to Spanish taste. In 1801, after Spain set out to invade Portugal, Spanish commander Manuel de Goody proved that he had reached foreign territory by sending a prized Portuguese citrus gift back to his queen.
They called it the War of the Oranges.
In Alfama, the oldest historical neighbourhood in Lisbon, local tour guide Jorge Crespo shows a group of visitors the cathedral, built shortly after the 1147 siege that returned the city from Islam to Christianity.
His gaze soon shifts from the medieval church’s fortified towers and imposing entrance to the side courtyard because — of course — there are orange trees there.
As in Marrakesh and Seville, oranges form part of the fabric of Lisbon. One of the city’s most picturesque streets is the ‘Orange Tree Traverse’ in Bica, a virtual urban orchard where orange trees are evenly spaced out in the middle of the stepped alleyway. Another area of the city is called Laranjeiras — Portuguese for orange trees — and the metro station of the same name has paintings of oranges on the walls of the platform.
But in front of the cathedral, Crespo reveals a surprising secret to his tourists about Lisbon oranges: they’re no good.
‘They taste very bitter,’ he says. ‘But it’s become a part of the local folklore, as visitors have no idea the oranges aren’t sweet. It’s very common to find half-eaten oranges at the bottom of the trees, but it’s tourists who try to eat them; the locals know better.
‘To taste real oranges,’ he advises his group, ‘go to the Algarve.’
The Algarve, Portugal
At Sagres, Europe’s southwestern-most point in the Algarve — from the Arabic al-Gharb, meaning ‘the West’ — waves crash into the base of the towering cliffs named for Saint Vincent, whose body once washed up on these shores.
According to legend, the Portuguese prince Henry the Navigator gazed out into the Atlantic Ocean from this vantage point in the 15th century and created his famed school of navigation in Sagres to plot the Portuguese journeys that would redefine the world.
The dawn of the Age of Discovery is more complicated than that, but the Algarve is where the voyages bore fruit — literally, as the Portuguese brought the orange back from China around the turn of the 16th century.
Though bitter oranges existed in some parts of Europe in the late Middle Ages through overland eastern trade networks, the Portuguese introduction of the sweet orange set off what one scholar has called ‘Early Modern citrus-mania’.
And in the sun-drenched Algarve, ‘the best land for citrus in the world’ (according to the undoubtedly neutral algarveorange.com), the orange tree found a perfect home, and the orange found a perfect name.
The Chinese origin of the fruit is still reflected in the Dutch word (sinaasappel) and one of the German words (apfelsine) for orange, which mean ‘Chinese apple’.
But due to their long association with Arabs in their own lands and in their North African crusades, the Portuguese took the Arab word nāranj — itself derived from Persian and Sanskrit — and it became laranja. The Spanish naranja, the Italian arancia, the French orange and through it the English orange also come from the same root word.
But remarkably, after lending its word for orange to the Romance languages, Arabic abandoned it for something deemed more appropriate.
The orange is now considered so inseparable from Portugal that Arabic — as well as Greek, Turkish, Romanian, Bulgarian and other languages — doesn’t even bother distinguishing between the two.
And so at the juice stalls in the Djemaa el-Fna in Marrakesh, where this tale began, the orange is known by the same name as the one-time coloniser responsible for bringing the fruit there in the first place: burtuqāl.