Gerolamo dai Libri, ‘The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne’, 1510-18.
© The National Gallery

The dullest most dismal month of the year needs all the help it can get, and it comes to Hackney from all over the world as citrus fruits glow in piles and mounds in every greengrocer in the borough.

Bright shades of orange and yellow tinged sometimes with green, light up the gloomy pavements, and the aroma of peel and juice as children eat them on the street enhances the visual pleasures.

But there is so much more to oranges and lemons than just peeling them, eating the juicy segments within and throwing the peel away. Most citrus fruit have a whole range of sensory pleasures for us to explore – the fruity acidity of the juice, the bitter flavour of the pith and the intense perfume of the aromatic oils in the peel, as well as the scent of the blossoms, available here in Hackney’s Turkish food stores as ‘Blossom Water’, an alternative to rosewater. Even the inedible pips have a use, yielding pectin to make your marmalade set nicely. In the past, when citrus fruits were an expensive luxury, every aspect was cherished, and peels we throw away were used in various ways, especially candied.

The obsessive British marmalade ritual is a survivor of this, maybe it was worse in Yorkshire, but memories of hording sugar (rationing) and then the sticky tedium of boiling up the bitter Seville oranges, slicing the softened peel, saving the pips, keeping the juice on one side to add later, sterilising the jars, remembering to get the waxed paper to keep off the mould, then a greaseproof paper top, and securing this with rubber bands, and doing the labels, and wiping the floor and doorknobs, and the poor cat, and collapsing with exhaustion, remain with me after over half a century. And I still go on doing it. Perhaps the pleasure of having special labels designed for me on the Mac is incentive enough.

But the sour or bitter oranges we buy for marmalade have other uses: instead of lemon juice on fish or grilled meat, juice and grated peel in the gravy for a roast duck, or a marinade for fish or meat, instead of vinegar in salad dressing, or a sliver of peel to pep up your G & T instead of lime.

In 16th-century Rome the great cook Bartolomeo Scappi would dress a dish just before serving with a sprinkling of bitter orange juice, salt and sugar, and a little powdered cinnamon. The sugar balances the acidity, the salt and cinnamon bring out the flavour, and the juice cuts the richness. Try this with plain roast or fried chicken.

Another recipe from Scappi is a simple lemon relish: take a nice organic unwaxed lemon and cut it up very finely, getting rid of the pips but keeping peel, juice and pith, and season with salt and sugar, tasting as you go to get the sweet-sour balance right, and just before using add a splash of rosewater or orange blossom water; this is lovely with roast pork or baked or fried fish.

On a Thursday last month, the bleakest day of the winter yet, it was no fun at all in windswept Brick Lane, with mercifully few tourists, but far too many boutiques and cupcakes and lattes. It was a relief to totter out of the cold into the two huge Bangladeshi supermarkets, where human warmth and chatter, and the indefinable aromas of spices and provisions, cheered the spirit. At Taj Stores huge sacks of rice, as big as me, arrays of solid cooking pots, shelves of pulses and spices and pickles and kind people to explain things to the benighted old granny. The citrus fruits of Bangladesh are unique, and special to the cuisine. The large green knobbly zara-lebu or shatkora (citrus macroptera) has a fairly solid interior, with hardly any juice, but a fragrant rind, which when lightly scratched gives off a perfume that is so much more than lemony, with overtones of lilies, violets and roses, and can be used grated into a salad or soup, or the whole fruit can be cut into small dice and a few of them added to a stew or baked fish. The smaller yellow shashni-lebu has a perfumed sour juice with many uses. They help you understand why in spite of harsh conditions, low pay, and a tangled political background people from Bangladesh have throughout their long history in the UK clung to the ingredients and flavours of so far away. The Rahim chain of stores supplies many of these.

Pomelo Salad

This is a refreshing use of any citrus fruit, but works really well with pomelo, one of the earliest citrus fruits of all. You could use grapefruit instead.

1 pomelo, peeled, and with the membrane removed from the segments (tedious but worth it)
1 ripe avocado, peeled and sliced
1 handful of fresh raw soy bean shoots, well washed
200g cooked, shelled prawns (save the shells to make fish broth with)
spring onions, thinly sliced

for the dressing…

Vietnamese fish sauce
organic sugar (something with flavour as well as sweetness)
3 or 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 cm slice of fresh ginger, shredded or crushed
1 fresh green bird’s eye chilli, finely sliced
2 spring onions finely sliced
Korean sesame oil

Mix all this lot together until nicely blended, tasting all the time to get the balance you are happy with.

for the garnish…

1 handful of basil leaves, coarsely chopped
some Chinese deep fried shallot
some Chinese deep fried garlic

Arrange everything in a shallow bowl and pour over the dressing, then ruin the arrangement by stirring gently until the things are coated, strew the garnish over, and serve.

Isabella d’Este, plump, acquisitive and forceful, turned a depressingly inconclusive military engagement by her husband Francesco Gonzaga, into a resounding victory by commissioning Andrea Mantegna in 1496 to paint Madonna della Vittoria, where hubby and assorted saints kneel before a Madonna and Child enthroned in a bower, with a huge glowing canopy of bright green leaves, white blossoms and yellow and orange fruit. Mantegna went on to use citrus fruit in the background of many paintings, the lemons and oranges and their white blossoms representing the purity and fecundity of the virgin mother. We also remember his day trip as a young man to Lake Garda on 24 September 1464 when he and his companions were entranced by the verdant meadows and fragrant lemon groves.

The growers of Lake Garda had a ready market not too far away in northern Europe, where the fragrant acidity of lemons was a luxury, and to Jews a necessity, for its role in Sukkot, the Feast of the Tabernacles, when the etrog, a special kind of citron, was used in harvest celebrations, using the fragrance of the nobbly skin and the potent shape to celebrate both the fecundity of the harvest and the fruitfulness of women in childbirth. Etrogim from as far away as Calabria are still prized by orthodox Jews, specially cultivated to meet rigorous standards of purity.

Paolo Morando, The Virgin and Child with the Baptist and an Angel, probably around 1514-18. © The National Gallery

Mantegna went on using citrus fruits in his work, giving visual delight as well as symbolic weight. The Madonna della Vittoria was placed in a chapel in Mantua constructed on the site of the house of a Jew whose shameful persecution by the townsfolk was perhaps redeemed by the verdant bower reminiscent of the structures of the Sukkot ceremonies. And what are we to make of the angel holding a lemon in a meaningful posture in a painting in the National Gallery by Paolo Morando of the Virgin and Child with saints, which so closely resembles Jewish ritual [right]?

From Palestine to Bangladesh to the mounds of oranges in Stoke Newington Church Street we can shop and cook and feast all the senses on these wonderful fruit.

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