Not all oranges are orange

It’s easy being green

Green-state citrus is loaded with essential oils that decline as the fruit ripens

When it comes to our fruit, we’ve been taught to look for one thing: ripeness. Supermarkets have conditioned us to believe the most valuable, edible experiences are the perfectly ripe ones: the ones we pay the most for. Ripeness has its own brand. Unripeness, by contrast, is only ever a kind of negative state, with no identity other than not being ripe.

In the way we’re most likely to find it, unripeness is picking premature for easy transport.

When peaches are as hard as bullets, they can forgive pretty much all violence. They have been picked for operational ease, not to capture a particular experience of flavour. Most of these fruits are due artificial ripening and packaging as ripe produce: in turn draining meaning from ripeness and feeding an experience of flavour which is confused and entirely unreal. Ripe is cosmetically enhanced unripeness and unripeness is something we pretend does not exist.

Sicilian pink navel, in October, when sherbet notes and bracing acidity balance sweetness

Yet unripeness can be so much more than this.

It is possible to pick a fruit, not yet fully mature, in a way that is gauged to capture its particular expressive texture at that point. Ripeness is the end of the story, but clearly, its cumulative events, the threads that got us there, are as interesting if not more so. Unripeness, let us say, is the unfinished, the work in progress. It has a different appeal. Unfinished things, things which are not yet about pure pleasure, more about interpretation and difficulty — engage us differently. We engage with them as collaborators and interpreters. Not surprising then, that where unripeness is celebrated, it’s in professional kitchens.

Green mandarins setting first fruits; green-state navels growing near Scordia, in Sicily’s Catania; eating oranges off the tree with Sig. Altieri, who sends us his green oranges

It is arguably citrus that arguably does unripeness most expressively. When a Bergamot, a mandarin, a cedro, is picked in its green state it is done so reverently and meaningfully to capture its temporally fragile fragrance and weight of essential oils. This is far from facilitating distribution. Flavour and aroma is highly volatile and in constant flux — and the precise point of pick will determine the flavour bouquet you end up with. So a first-harvest Bergamot — the most deep green fruit — will have floral aroma that, by February will have moved on towards a kind of bracing freshness. This is the kind of detail critical for a parfumier (and the observation comes from Hermès’ ‘nose’ Jean-Claude Ellena) but also valuable to a chef or mixologist.

Green state citrus can be picked up to two months pre-maturity, at 50–60% of full size in the case of a green mandarin, and when expression is focused in the skin. These fruits are still on the edge of themselves — squeeze, and they’ll release a mist of vaporising oils — and still unclear in many ways. In their green state, the boundaries between orange, lemon, clementine et al are not yet defined and a green orange say, seems to encapsulate the entire possibility of citrus. As such, they de-familiarise the familiar, and unseat expectations. They are not orange oranges, both to look at and to taste. Their spectacular, alien otherworldliness adds an element of unfixity to a preparation. They open up tired formulae and make of the finished, the unfinished.

Calabrian bergamots; green mandarins and green navels

Unripeness deserves its own set of meanings, its own flavour notes, its own identity. It has the potential to move us away from an idea of eating where there is one, fixed, point of edibility. It engages us more complexly and truthfully with the seasons — with their margins, slippage and flux. With how fecundity, a whiff of fermentation — Autumn’s walnuts, grapes and figs — meets the first sharpness of winter in a green mandarin.

If we only ever eat fruit fully ripe we narrow our palates towards sugar and consequently believe anything other — sharp, sour, bitter — is incorrect. Supermarkets might have us believe that something growing for months on a tree is only edible for three days. Let’s not be green.