Jaffa oranges, the ‘surprise of nature’

Published on Haaretz

It’s orange season in Israel, and the Jaffa/Shamouti variety is still king; even though the groves in Jaffa itself are long gone.

Once upon a time, late autumn meant an overwhelming scent of orange blossom pervading the coastal corridor from Rishon Letzion through the port of Jaffa and up to Netanya, broadening out to Ramat Hasharon and Kfar Sava.

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The “Jaffa” orange, a winter or mid-season fruit, remains one of Israel’s most famous exports, and while many groves have been sold for development as agriculture has declined in Israel, there are still whiffs of the old fragrance from surviving stands along Highway 4. My wife’s family used to own orange groves in Petah Tikva in the first half of the last century.

The Jaffa orange is a chimera – one of my favorite words – a naturally occurring mutation.

My father-in-law, a geneticist who began his career in agriculture, calls it, “a surprise of nature.” All Jaffa oranges originate in a mutation from a single branch of one native “baladi” tree, discovered according to legend around 1844 in Palestine, and originally called a Shamouti orange, a name which might suggest Lebanese roots.

The Shamouti orange is almost seedless. In fact, a Shamouti seed will yield a “baladi” tree that produces a round, seedy cousin, which few Shamouti lovers would welcome into their family. The only way to grow new Shamoutis is by properly grafting Shamouti branches onto the trunk of another tree.

All oranges, of course, are not alike. The Shamouti is ideal for hiking or the lunch bag. The thick peel is leak-proof and an excellent shock absorber, cushioning the fruit and protecting your pocket from juice stains, and it peels easily. A thumbnail or surreptitious half-bite is enough to get started, and with proper rotation, the entire coat can be unwrapped in a single curl. (The peel retains sufficient body to be re-formed into a hollow sphere.) Alternatively, four incisions with a knife create easily removed quadrants of rind.

The Shamouti is large, almost oval, but does not have the extra section at the apex that you find on top of navel oranges. Although it looks good, packs easily and ships well, the Shamouti is the opposite of that dismal and tasteless bastard of overbreeding, the industrial tomato, designed to fit into plastic row containers, marked by its smooth skin and mushy consistency.

The Shamouti orange has a sweet and fine flavor and a firm texture, satisfying both thirst and hunger.

Oranges became the main export of Palestine in the 19th century. Around the time the Shamouti was discovered, there were 200,000 oranges exported from this area, but by 1870 that number had jumped to 38 million. The Templer colony, when it wasn’t waiting for the next Dan Brown novel, was a major exporter.

The growing Zionist community in Palestine plunged into the orange business, experimenting, for example, with grafts onto lime and quince trees in the Jezreel Valley.

By the 1930s, Jewish-Arab partnerships and competition abounded in the orange business, and by 1939, orange groves covered more than 75,000 acres of Palestine and employed more than 100,000 workers.

Due to good weather conditions, forecasts estimate that Israel’s orange yield in the current 2013-14 season will reach 100 thousand metric tons, an increase of 37% over last year. Navel oranges, however, are asserting themselves in Israel, and beginning to outnumber Shamouti orange trees in our country, according to the AgroChart website.

My father-in-law recalls how, in their groves, expert packers would encase every orange in paper in a few deft motions, individually wrapping them for international shipping. Above-ground irrigation pools were built in the groves themselves to collect water, since the flow from wells was too slow; he learned to swim in one of those irrigation pools. But this was not a clandestine practice – swimming lessons were offered to all the kids of Petah Tikva in the irrigation pool, by a Mr. Baraker, until the Petah Tikva municipal pool was built and Baraker received the job as its lifeguard and swimming instructor.

Attempts to introduce the Shamouti orange into Florida citrus groves originally used the wrong kind of graft or were grown from seeds, and produced an orange full of seeds, known today as Florida Jaffa (or Joppa) oranges.

The Shamouti is produced across the Middle East, and, according to the family chronicles, my wife’s family played a role in this story as well.

In the early 1930s, her grandfather and great uncle went to visit their father in Morocco, where he was working as the Sultan’s personal physician. They brought Shamouti orange branches with them, dug wells, grafted the trees, and helped launch Morocco’s citrus industry. But ironically enough, the family’s own Petah Tikva groves were sold off to finance the trip.

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