Amy Bradford explores the history behind clementines at Christmas...

Oranges of all kinds are at their best during Britain's winter months a bright, fragrant blessing to carry us through the darkest days of the year. At Christmas time, the clementine is one of the most popular and plentiful varieties, its tight, glossy skin often accompanied by a sprig of zesty leaves. Many of us have fond memories of them dating back to childhood, when they were stuffed into Christmas stockings with other nostalgic treats like sugar mice and chocolate coins.

Most people probably don't know where this clementine tradition comes from, but the apocryphal story is rather a charming one. It tells how Saint Nicholas, the 4th-century Greek bishop upon whom Santa Claus was modelled, one day heard of a poor man who had failed to find suitors for his three daughters, lacking money for their dowries. Nicholas sought out the man's house and tipped three sacks of gold down the chimney, where the coins happened to land in the girls' stockings, which were drying beside the fire. The clementines (or oranges) in our modern Christmas stockings are said to be a symbol of the saint's generosity. Poverty and desire probably also played a role in fostering the custom in times past, oranges were not only an affordable gift, but also a brief taste of exotic, sunnier climes.

As for the clementine itself, its origins are somewhat uncertain. Oranges are like roses, with endless hybrids having been cultivated over the centuries, each with its own particular shape, scent, texture and taste. The clementine is a mixture of a mandarin and a classic sweet orange, and is said to have been discovered by Clment Rodier, a French monk living in 19th-century Algeria, who found it growing in the orchard of the orphanage he ran. This spontaneous hybrid was named after Rodier in 1902, but that didn't stop some experts claiming similar varieties had grown in China thousands of years earlier. In recent times, it's become common to associate clementines with Mediterranean Europe and California, where many are grown.

In a sense, then, the clementine epitomises the way in which we've grown distant from our food sources. It also shows up some gaps in our knowledge of everyday produce. Consider how interchangeably we use the words clementine, tangerine and satsuma to refer to any kind of small orange, unaware of the precise differences between them. Satsumas are softer, with looser skin and a subtle flavour, while clementines have a thinner, more fragrant skin and zingier taste; tangerines have the strongest flavour of all, but are harder to peel.

It's that easy peel factor, along with a lack of pips, that has really catapulted clementines and satsumas above old-fashioned oranges in the popularity stakes. This has also brought them some detractors, notably the food author Rose Prince, who, writing for The Telegraph in December 2009, lamented the British disdain for natural imperfections in fruit, such as seeds or stubborn rind. I will never forget an Italian agronomist asking what it was with the British and pips, she relates. 'In Italy, a fruit without pips is not natural but something to regard with suspicion,' he said.

Besides their convenience, however, the delicate flavour and sweet perfume of clementines are more than enough to seduce most palates. The scent is created mostly by limonene, a chemical compound present in the peel, which has been shown in scientific studies to have a stress-relieving effect. This is something we could all do with at Christmas, but if you want to be a bit original with your citrus stash, make Nigella Lawson's aromatic but pleasingly uncomplicated clementine cake, and serve in thick slices with a pot of tea.

Words by Amy Bradford. Images by Kim Lightbody. Also featured are pieces from the New Makers collection.

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