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Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Bitter orange (Νεραντζάκι)

What does the Greek economic crisis taste of? One of the projects at the 2nd Symposium of Greek Gastronomy that greatly touched my heart was that of the bitter orange art project by Ino Varvariti and Persefoni Myrtsou. They harvested the well known bitter oranges in December 2012, January 2013 and March 2013 from the trees that line the roads of the largest cities of Greece, Athens and Thessaloniki, as a way to identify the taste of the crisis. Bitter orange trees are very hardy trees, and they make a spectacular sight throughout the period when the dark green foliage stands as a stunning background to the bright orange fruit that it is laden with.
Bitter orange trees in Syntagma Square

Bitter orange trees in an inner-city Athens street.
These bitter orange trees are used purely for decoration, as their fruit is too bitter to be eaten raw. They can survive in cold/low temperatures where sweet orange trees do not grow, even in highly urbanised settings. When they are in flower, they mask the polluted air of the city with the sweet smell of their blossom; when the oranges take on their bright colour, they look similar to a Christmas tree. Christmas is when they look their best.
"Their strength against harsh weather conditions and sicknesses, their fragrant flowers and their beautiful fruits, are some of the reasons why these trees are often planted in the urban centres of Greece in order to embellish the urban spaces. However, these 'urban' bitter oranges are rarely harvested by the citizens, due to the polluted environment of the cities and due to the fact that the origin of food is usually connected to its production in the rural space."
I thought that the historical centre's taste of bitter orange was a little more bitter than Syntagma's taste. By trying the different varieites, you are able to understand the effects of the crisis in each area through the bitterness of each variety. 
But the fruit of these trees, despite being too bitter to eat raw, can be used in a number of ways:
"After a certain procedure and with the addition of sugar, it is often used for the making of marmalades and sweets. Also, the leaves, the flowers and the skin, due to their fragrance are used for the making of confectioneries, in alcoholic beverages and in aromatology."
In Crete, the juice of the bitter orange can be used to flavour dishes or to marinate meat and fish, in the same way as lemons. Bitter orange juice is also used as a curing treatment and preservation for olives. The peel of the fruit can be dried and candied, to be used as dried fruit in sweets, pies, savouries and salads. But most of the time, the peel is turned into a typical Greek dessert known as the γλυκό του κουταλιού, the spoon sweet, where an array of bitter or under-ripe fruits are turned into a syrupy dessert.
Bitter orange spoon sweet is typically served in Greece as a refreshment with a glass of water, sometimes together with black coffee. This is considered a special treat for guests to one's home. Therefore, it serves as a medium for discussion
The harvest points of Persefoni's and Ino's bitter orange spoon sweet were some well known spots in central streets running through Athens. Most of these areas carry some emotional weight in the minds of all Greeks:
"The selected urban areas (around Syntagma Square, the historical centre and Kypseli in Athens; Agiou Mina, Vassileos Irakleiou, Proxenou Koromila and Mitropoleos streets, as well as the “Upper” town in Thessaloniki) are spaces registered in the personal and collective subconscious as agents of historical memory, but they also remain alive parts of the cities in the present. Now the marks of the economic crisis are visible in these spaces."
So Ino's and Persefoni's bitter orange, harvested from the urban areas of Greece most heavily bruised by the economic crisis, takes on a symbolic social character:
"The spoon-sweet still maintains this [hospitality] attribute, and thus becomes the point of departure for the creation of new associations and construction of new meanings. Furthermore, it enables an open dialogue and exchange of ideas in relation to the crisis in Greece."
By turning the urban bitter orange into spoon sweet and serving it in the village of Amari, Persefoni and Ino brought the taste of the crisis to the Symposium and to the village of Amari. It had also previsouly travelled to Berlin, as part of the exhibition “Domestic crisis” at the Institut für alles Mögliche. There, the audience, being predominantly German, had to be shown how to eat the bitter orange spoon sweet, because, being German, they were not familiar with this tradition, unlike at Amari, where the bitter orange was more well known to the participants and the subtle differences in taste among the different areas where the fruit was harvested (they were all prepared separately) could be appreciated.

The bitter orange spoon sweet project was directly associated with the economic crisis, as was my own presentation (Greek food, Greek identity and the economic crisis). If I lived in the middle of the crisis-ridden neighbourhoods where the bitter oranges were harvested, I would probably be the first to use them. Therefore, I can relate to Persefoni's and Ino's urban bitter orange spoon sweet - it's all part of the frugal food lifestyle that the crisis has forced us to adopt.

All the photos (except the first two) come from the artists' personal archive. The photos of the bitter orange trees in urban Athens have been taken from the blogs credited to them below each photo. The italicised paragraphs come from Persefoni's and Ino's exhibition work.

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  1. This is excellent. Linking the use of the bitter oranges to the crisis, the bitterness of the areas to which one has been (or is being more affected) is a great idea. And using the bitter oranges to turn into sweets truly is an aspect of the times of need. Here in Portugal people are also turning into this that their parents and grandparents used to prepare when there was little money available. Going back to this knowledge and use of things bring us to a bittersweet feeling...

    1. there is something about this art installation which really touched my heart, as i have many images of the places where these oranges came from in athens

  2. So Maria, what exactly is a spoon sweet? Is it a preserve that one could eat on toast? Does one eat it by itself, sort of like a sweet stewed fruit? Do you put cream on it to temper the bitterness of the bitter orange or is it sweet enough from sugar or honey? Maybe if I google it I can find out or you can set me straight!

  3. OK, Maria, I did google it and found a very good explanation. They say that it is offered a small spoonful at a time, usually in a small dish and served as you said with coffee, tea or a glass of water and is viewed as a sign of hospitality. I can really imagine how this practice came about. I have been reading about food history, for instance, how pasta and tomato sauce came to be the main food of Italy. Fascinating! I ate some Norwegian "delicacies" as a child that a lot of people would not want to try. That is a whole other world of food! My great grandparents all emigrated from Norway around the turn of the century. What a wonderful World we live in! (except for the politicians, wall street thieves, evil doers, etc.)