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Food and Drink For Members

Why does Valencia have so many blooming oranges?

Esme Fox
Esme Fox - [email protected]
Why does Valencia have so many blooming oranges?
Why does Valencia have so many oranges? Photo: Ilya P / Unsplash

Valencia has long been associated with the sweet orange fruit and there is even a type of orange that is named after the region. So why does the Spanish city have 12,000 orange trees and what's the history behind it all?

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Visit Valencia today and you'll see that oranges are everywhere, decorating the façade of the old train station, orange trees line the city streets, and naranjas (oranges in Spanish) are even used in Valencia's famous cocktail - agua de Valencia. 

In order to understand how Valencia became so entwined with oranges you have to trace the history of the fruit all the way back to ancient China.

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According to food historians, they were created by crossing an early mandarin relative with a pomelo. The result was so successful that the fruit soon spread into southeast Asia, India and then the Middle East, where they caught the attention of the Moors.

READ ALSO: 'What did the Moors ever do for us?' How Spain was shaped by Muslim rule

There is evidence as far back as the 5th century AD of oranges arriving from north Africa. However, it is thought that they became commonplace in the Iberian Peninsula at the time of the Caliphate of Córdoba, which started in 929.

At first, the orange tree was used for ornamental purposes, to decorate patios such as the Córdoba Mosque and later the Patios de la Lonja in Valencia.

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These oranges were not the type we know and eat today, they were very bitter and were often used as a condiment, for cleaning and preparing pork, and even for polishing copper and brass.  

These are still the similar type of orange that you see lining the streets of Valencia today, but these are not the ones that you eat or drink the juice from, these are either used for decoration or exported to places like the UK to be made into marmalade. 

READ ALSO: Seville brings back tradition of gifting Queen of England marmalade

While this explains how the bitter Seville orange arrived in Spain, there are two theories as to how the sweet variety we associate with Valencia came here.

"Orange buyers in Córdoba", painting by Ángel Díaz Huertas (1902).
 

One suggests that it was when the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama sailed to India in 1497 and Portugal became the main exporter of the sweet oranges from this part of Asia.

Another theory is that Genoa in Italy maintained trading routes with the East because of its importance in the silk industry at the beginning of the 15th century and sweet oranges were imported this way instead.  

Whichever theory is correct, the first shipments of sweet oranges to be exported came from Lisbon, which at the time was the centre of all orange groves in Europe.

In the beginning, the sweet orange was only intended for the rich and in the middle of the 16th century, its cultivation was introduced in various places in the old Kingdom of Valencia, which included Orihuela, Xàtiva and Alzira, but for a long time, it did not go beyond being a tree planted in gardens and on the edges of fields.

During the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, the Valencian citrus market was restricted to the region and was only sold seasonally, specifically at Christmas. Two of the main recorded early exports of oranges from Valencia were in 1632 when Xátiva sent around 500 loads of fruit, which included oranges and lemons to the Kingdom of Castille and then in the year 1717, when 68,000 lemons and 18,000 oranges were sent from Sagunt to Holland. Despite this, rice and silk were still the main exports from Valencia at that time.  

During those early years, it was actually the town of Soller in Mallorca that was a pioneer in exporting these sweet oranges to the south of France and Catalonia. It is said that many of the orange trees from Soller were transferred to Valencia due, mainly, to a plague of diseases, despite the fact that Valencia already had many of these trees of its own. Even though Soller may have exported oranges first, Valencia soon became more well-known for them due to the industrial revolution.  

But this is only half of the story, the other half can be attributed to the true cradle of the orange: the small town of Carcaixent in the Valencia region. Oranges had already been grown in Carcaixent since 1718 by the priest, Vicente Monzó Vidal who planted the first citrus field there. Together with a notary and an apothecary, he created the true Valencian sweet orange by grafting lemon trees with sweet orange trees brought from Murcia.  

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Alzira and other municipalities in the region started growing these varieties too and soon orange groves spread along the entire Mediterranean coast.

France was the first foreign country to consume oranges from Carcaixent at the beginning of the 19th century. Soller had been the main exporter to France up until then, but Carcaixent soon took centre stage. In 1848, the Mallorcan businessman José Catalá Broseta, who brought oranges from Soller, set up a business to make orange containers in the old Carcaixent barracks and launched the beginning of what was to be Valencia’s cemented connection with the citric fruit.

Oranges piled up in a warehouse in Carcaixent. Photo: Vicenç Salvador Torres Guerola/Wikipedia

At the time, the main supplier of exports to England was still Portugal, while Valencia occupied a secondary position, its main market being France. It was thanks to Catalá, that the first large-volume export of Valencian oranges took place.

The first important export to England came in 1849 and in 1850 the first export of oranges to Liverpool took place in the Port of Valencia, which highlighted the need for more maritime connections. 

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By 1871, 45,764 tonnes of oranges were exported from Valencia, which represented 75 percent of those from all over Spain, while in 1894, 140,000 tonnes were exported and twenty years later, in 1913, the half-a-million mark was reached for the first time.  

The main buyers at the beginning of the century were the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands and Valencia became a world leader in all things to do with oranges. 

One more thing - With millions of oranges so readily available in Valencia, you may be wondering if you can just pick one from the trees in the city and eat it up. 

Unfortunately, these bitter oranges are not deemed fit for consumption by Valencian authorities largely due to the city pollution they pick up.

Instead, the 420 tonnes of naranjas bordes that are collected every year in the ingenious way seen in the video above are used primarily as compost, but also in the production of essential oils and herbal teas (mainly the leaves for the latter).

There are simply so many oranges in the city that Valencia's Town Hall is currently looking for alternative uses for them. If life gives you bitter oranges, what do you do with them?

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