From mid December to around March, my doorbell will go, but by the time I get down spiral stairs and leap the cat, I see a shadowy figure of a neighbour reteating up the alleyway. There, tied to my door knocker will be a bag bulging with fruit; oranges of all kinds, lemons and sometimes grapefruit or pomegranates. The citrus fruits have knarled thick skins and bird dirt on them. Nothing beats freshly picked, does it? The skins will have weathered last autumn’s heat and grown inch thick to conserve the juice within.
I am delighted to find this food for free. I rarely need to buy lemons all winter long. I remember how expensive ‘organic, unwaxed lemons are in UK supermarkets, and I smile at the way my local economy works. No food miles involved here.
But where does all this fruit come from? Even if you wonder around villages, you don’t see many orchards. If the harsh winter storms have brought down a wall, you might spy a lemon or orange grove through the crevice. The so-called three villages of Lija, Attard and Balzan, now quite an urban spread in the centre of Malta, have been known since the time of the Knights as the garden of the island for their fruitful, sheltered orchards. San Anton Palace gardens in Balzan has orchards in tact. You can buy the palace’s oranges at the government garden centre on the edge of Attard on the road to Mdina. Watch out for the word Laring on the boards – it’s Maltese for orange.
The cultivation of oranges in Malta dates back to Arabic settlement between 870 and 1090. So, we have the Arab’s ingenuity with irrigation to thank for making citrus so abundant here today.
Malta has its own varieties alongside those found across the Mediterreanean. My son loves the ‘sweet orange’ of Lumi Laring, which is very easy to peel and usually a half blood orange. Strangely, there’s a similar variety grown in Tunisia called the ‘Maltese Orange’. So who knows which country had this variety first! In the time of the British empire, a type of blood orange was known as ‘the Maltese orange’.
But Malta cultivated only a bitter variety of orange up to the 14th century. Sweet oranges are believed to have arrived on Portuguese ships, bringing goods from India. Like almost anything authentically Maltese, Lumi Laring ta’ Malta are of a mixed parentage. A living legacy of the crossroads of cultures that Malta has always been.
But from wherever they come, Malta’s oranges are a sight to behold. Health giving and often cost-free too! What more could you ask from the seemingly humble fruit hanging so often on my door?
Photo: Alex Grech