December kicks off the season for spectacular citrus.
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Orange season hits its stride this month and just in time. Deliciously aromatic and bursting with sweet yet tart juice, this bright citrus fruit is perfect for combating the winter cold. Whether you love exotic blood oranges, Valencias for squeezing juice or big, glowing navel oranges—the perfect Christmas stocking stuffer—it’s easy to see why the orange is the world’s most popular citrus fruit.
Both the bitter orange (mainly used for making marmalade today) and the more common sweet orange originated in southwest China several thousand years ago, appearing in written records by around 500 B.C. Over millennia, oranges took root around the world, traveling along trade routes to flourish in India, Japan and Persia before finding a home in the Mediterranean by the 11th century.
Sweet oranges became a main crop in Portugal after explorer Vasco da Gama carried home a superior variety from an Eastern sea voyage; the country became Europe’s main supplier, and today, the modern Greek word for orange remains portokáli. It was Christopher Columbus himself who planted sweet oranges in the Caribbean. Soon after, Spanish settlers brought them to Florida, where the planting of huge orange groves—and the invention of orange-juice concentrate in the 1940s—eventually created the state’s $9 billion citrus industry.
Florida’s crop of thin-skinned, juicy fruit is distinctive from the thick-skinned, easily segmented oranges grown in California, which emerged as Florida’s citrus rival. Former New Yorker writer John McPhee described the differences in his 1967 book, Oranges, in typical pithy style: “Californians say that if you want to eat a Florida orange, you have to get in a bathtub first. … [In] Florida, it is said that you can run over a California orange and not even wet the pavement.” (If you want to avoid any debate, take home blood oranges instead and prove McPhee wrong: He asserted in his book’s pages that “blood oranges frighten American women.”)
No matter where your oranges come from, however, you can count on their well-known health benefits. One medium orange gives you more than 100 percent of the recommended daily value for vitamin C, an important antioxidant that also supports the immune system and collagen production in the skin.
Oranges, once a luxury only for the very wealthy, are something we can all enjoy today. This month, it’s worth doing just that, as the best crop of the year starts to become available.
The best way to ensure oranges are delicious and juicy is to buy them in the winter at the peak of the season. Look for fruit that is firm and heavy for its size, with bright, colorful skins.