These days, though, tangerines and their fellows are available pretty much year round. They are part of a large crew of citrus fruit that embraces three different classifications of the orange: clementines, satsumas, mandarins, and various hybrids including the tangelo and the tangor.
Technically, the tangerine is a mandarin orange and treated as a variety of Citrus reticulata, the botanical name for the mandarin. It’s also known as Citrus tangerina, named for its origins in Tangier, Morocco. But while the names are pretty interchangeable, a tangerine is a mandarin but a mandarin isn’t always a tangerine. The Citrus Variety Collection of the University of California lists 167 different hybrids and varieties of mandarins, with clementines and satsumas falling into the category.
The mandarin is the ancestor of all other types - the original orange, if you like. The orange isn’t a pure fruit. It’s a hybrid between a mandarin and a pomelo. It originated in the vast region that embraces Southern China, Northeast India and Burma. The earliest mention of it comes in Chinese literature in 314BC. Of all fruit trees, it’s now the most cultivated in the world.
Smaller than the common orange, tangerines, clementines and mandarins are also sweeter and easier to peel than the orange and with a flavour far more intense. That peel dries particularly well (slowly in the oven at a low temperature) for using as a cooking spice in beef and lamb stews since they have much less bitter white pith than the orange.
Tangerines were first cultivated by an American, Major Atway, in Palatka, Florida. He is thought to have imported them from Tangier, to develop as a distinct crop. In 1843, he sold his groves to N.H. Moragne, who gave his name to a tangerine that in turn produced a seedling of the Dancy tangerine. Until the 1970s, this was one of the most popular varieties sold in the US. These days, though, it’s too sensitive and delicate for the voracious commercial demands of transport and sale, and only fruits every other year besides which doesn’t suit the business.
Now they sit in the supermarket, waiting patiently for the Christmas stocking and the feast table. But if you want to get ahead on your Christmas gifts, go for clementines. They respond readily to being poached, which turns them into great presents. You have plenty of time now - and this recipe takes very little of it - to preserve a stock of them in large jars. You can also eat the recipe at once. Just wait for it to cool down, and serve with creme fraiche and perhaps a plate of cantucci or plain vanilla cookies.
For 1 large jar
500g clementines (they will shrink)
250 g sugar
500 ml water
2 cm piece of fresh ginger root plus 1/2 tsp sliced ginger root
1 stick cinnamon
1 star anise (optional)
1/2 tsp cloves
75 ml Grand Marnier, brandy or rum (optional)
Bring the water slowly to the boil with the sugar, ginger, cinnamon, star anise and cloves. Boil rapidly for about 5 minutes then add the pierced fruits. Bring back to boil and then lower heat a bit and simmer for about 1 hour or until the fruit has gone soft.
Spoon the clementines into a sterilized jar. Bring the syrup back to the boil and up to a temperature of 113C. It will have thickened and reduced by now. Remove the spices.
Let the syrup cool a little then pour it into the jar with the fruit. Add the brandy or rum. Include the fresh slices of ginger and a couple of new cloves. Seal the jar and give it a good shake to mix everything together.
Store somewhere dark and cool for 2 weeks before using.
This column written by Julia Watson originally appeared in the November 2021 edition of The Bugle.