History of citrus

Citrus fruits have a rich background.

Everyone thinks they know about citrus. After all, we eat on an average at least several servings of citrus every week. But how much do you actually know about the juicy fruit you consume? Citrus has a rich background.

A short history of citrus fruits

The various species of Citrus are all believed to be native to the subtropical and tropical regions of Asia and the Malay Archipelago, and to have spread from there to other sections of the world. Citrus has been cultivated through the ages, and in some pretty remote places.

The history of the spread of citrus reads like a romance novel. Even in very early times, the appearance of both the beautiful tree and fruit attracted the attention of travelers and received mention in their written narratives. However, no matter how loved citrus was, the spread of the citrus tree from one part of the world to another was actually quite slow.

Around 310 B.C. the first member of the citrus family was introduced to Europe. For several hundred years this was the only citrus fruit known. A tile floor mosaic found in a Roman villa near Tusculum indicates that lemons and limes were becoming known in Italy. Another mosaic in Rome, this one designed about 330 A.D. for Constantine the Great, indicates that, at least in Italy, oranges and lemons were being grown.

It is now known that the sweet orange had been grown for many centuries in China and had apparently reached an advanced stage of cultivation before it became well known to Europeans. Han Yen-chih, wrote in 1178 A.D. and translated into English in the Monograph on the Oranges of Wên-chou, Chekiang, 1923, named and described some twenty-seven varieties of sweet, sour, and mandarin oranges. He also described citrons, kumquats, and the trifoliate orange and discussed nursery methods, grove management, and diseases.

Of course, other areas with temperate climates started cultivating citrus as well. Areas such as Spain and other tropical regions did their part to bring citrus to many lands, including the Americas. Through exploration and conquest, sweet juicy citrus found its way around the world.

The citrus of biblical times

Even though citrus is not directly mentioned in the Bible, varieties of citrus did grow during biblical times and became part of the the religious culture of the time. Even though there was no word for “citrus” in ancient Greek or Hebrew dialect, we learn about this type of fruit, not in biblical text, but rather in written instructions for religious ceremonies in which the fruit mentioned appears to fit the category we know as citrus. Take a look at how historians have come to understand the citrus fruit of biblical times.

Etrog is the celebration citrus

"And you shall take on the 1st day the fruit of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God 7 days!" Leviticus 23:40.

Described in the Bible as early as 200 B.C., etrog is commonly referred to as peri eitz hadar, literally translated to a 'fruit of the beautiful tree.' So even though there is no direct mention of the word “citrus” in this Bible verse, historians believe the 'fruit of a beautiful tree' would be this citrus fruit.

Through other historical writings and religious manuscripts outside of the Bible, it is learned that etrog, or ethrog, is an oblong fruit with knobby skin, which is light gold in color. Jewish people were introduced to this fruit in Babylonia during their exile there and carried it back to Palestine. Etrog, a member of the larger class citron, became one of the 'four elements' (palm branch, willows, myrtle, and citron) in the religious Feast of Booths.

In traditional Jewish culture, the fruit must be as unblemished as possible for religious ceremony. This means extra care is needed to cut around the leaves and thorns to prevent scratching the fruit. Also, if dust or dirt gets caught in the fruit's stomata during growth, it will later appear as a black or brown dot on the fruit, which is unacceptable for religious ceremonies. This perfection wouldn't very likely occur if the etrog was shipped, therefore making etrog a fruit that needed to be grown locally.

Of course, shipping containers have improved so Jewish families can find this fruit just about anywhere in the world today. Harvesting techniques have also improved in order to provide enough etrog wherever it is needed for religious ceremony. In order to ship properly, the fruit is picked while still green, taking advantage of the excretion of ethylene gas to further ripen the fruit in a controlled manner. This is the same gas that is naturally released from apples, so some growers simply put the fruits in the same box as apples when transporting.

For commercial use etrog is generally harvested no earlier than January when it is at optimum size. As prescribed in religious writings, the fruit can only reach the size of a hen's egg in order to be considered kosher, but as long as the etrog can be held with one hand, it will work.

Citron is a varied family

While the etrog is generally grouped under the larger classification of citron, there are numerous varieties. Some are ribbed and bumpy on the outer rind. One variety even has finger-like projections, which is commonly referred to as 'Buddha's Hand.'

During biblical times, aside from religious ceremony, citron was used for medical purposes for combating seasickness, intestinal problems, and even as an antibiotic and antidote to poison.

The citron is unlike the more common citrus species we are familiar with today. While those more popular fruits are peeled to consume their pulpy and juicy segments, the citron's pulp is dry, containing a small quantity of juice, if any. The main content of a citron fruit is the thick white rind which cannot be separated from the segments easily. Other than religious ceremony, today the citron is used for the fragrance or zest of its rind.

Papeda is a peculiar citrus cousin

The papeda group includes some of the most tropical, and yet frost-tolerant, citrus plants. Because of this unique combination, it is believed that papeda may have been found in cold mountainous regions of Asia as well as hot, desert areas. Biblical references to this particular citrus are not made, but as a member of the citron family, and because of the ability to grow in most of the lands of biblical times, papeda would very likely be a part of the fruit basket.

Many papedas are known for slow growth, small size relative to other citrus species, and thorniness. Though all papeda fruits are, in fact, edible, some varieties are considered too sour or bitter to actually want to eat. However, when food is scarce, this citrus fruit may have been consumed, but just nothing to write home about. This could explain why it would probably not be written about in biblical times.

If you search for citrus fruits in the Bible, you won't find any direct references, but you will discover some very unique uses for what was a part of the citron family. Both religious and medical, when people of biblical times were given the gift of citron, or citrus, they made use of it to the best of their ability. Because of the region, many varieties would have been grown and harvested. You not find Etrog, Buddha's Hand, or Papeda in your neighborhood grocery store, but the uniqueness of these citrus fruits would be well worth the search.

Citrus divides medieval classes

Medieval times may possibly have been some of the most fit times in our historical culture, but not for everyone. Even though the era lacked the scientific knowledge we have now to explain nutrition and health, there was a natural occurrence that was keeping at least some of the people healthier. How was this possible?

While the noble classes were feasting on huge meals and languishing at extravagantly decadent parties, the peasant classes were busy working hard physically to provide for their family. One of these classes benefited from a healthy diet, while the other suffered. Let's examine the role that citrus played in Medieval times.

The clash of the citrus classes

The wealthy nobles of the Middle Ages ate little fresh fruit for several reasons. Simple fruit was not decadent enough for their station in life. Also, unprepared food was viewed with some doubt, suspicion, and disdain because it came straight from the plant. Raw foods were considered unclean in aristocratic society.

Food was extremely important to the peasant classes. It had to be plentiful so they could continue to work hard and provide for their families. Peasants were not fussy when it came to food. Common people and the poor also didn't possess cooking facilities to process food, so what could they do but eat what they could forage.

The nobles, on the other hand, could lay around all day gorging themselves with piles of rich foods. For the nobles, the richer the food the better, since they equated opulence and decadence with power and wealth. And, nothing says opulence like sugary, highly processed, rich, fatty foods. Certainly, citrus and other fruit did not fit this bill, unless it was baked in pies or other sugary treats.

Because of the lack of fresh fruit, the diet of the noble classes lacked the vital nutrients that citrus provides. This led to an assortment of health problems including bad teeth, skin diseases, scurvy, and rickets.

So, because nobility, or the aristocratic class, considered eating raw fruit beneath them, distasteful, and not at all suitable of their standing in society, fresh fruit was left to the peasants and the poor. Too bad for the nobles.

Sweet and sour medieval citrus cuisine

During the Medieval era, some citrus was readily available, but often looked upon with sheer disdain, especially by nobility or the upper classes. Bitter Orange, Sweet Orange, Lemon, and Lime are found in documentation during the era, but not all of it was used often, or if at all.

Bitter orange is a citrus fruit close to the orange, but very bitter. It must be cooked or candied to be good tasting and generally was avoided all together. The sweet orange that we know of today appeared only in the later part of the medieval era. When you read the word 'orange' in a medieval text, it almost always refers to the bitter orange, which wasn't exactly welcome on most tables.

In 13th century Arabic culinary cuisine, sourness was being added to dishes. The use of sour apples, citron, and pomegranates, in addition to that of vinegar, started changing how people felt their foods should taste. Citron which was widely available, was not like the citrus we are familiar with today. It had extremely sour flavors and did not contain much pulp or juice like oranges and other citrus do today.

In Christian Europe, recipes with lemon juice, of Arabic origin, were called Limonia and they are found in the Liber de Coquina, or Book of the Kitchen, the Anonimo Toscano, the Anonimo Veneziano and the Modus. The Libre del Coch also uses lemon and orange juice for sauces and stews. Candied lemon was used in Arabian cookery, and was found again at the end of the 16th century in Lancelot de Casteau.

Citrus only really gained in popularity as the Medieval ages waned, for several reasons. Could we suppose that one reason was the nobles were dying off, suffering from illnesses brought on from lack of the nutritional benefits of citrus?

While citrus was considered by nobility too 'dirty' to touch, the health benefits alone kept citrus on the tables of the peasants. Is it coincidence that the noble class started failing, while the peasant class grew healthier and stronger? Perhaps not. The once disdained citrus, eaten only by the lower classes and the poor, has been lifted to super-food status in today's society... and rightly so!

Close detail of of the skin of an orange.

Orange skin.

Yellow, ripe lemons on a lemon tree on a bright, sunny day.
A citron fruit with two leaves.