Thursday, March 6, 2014

The best thing about armchair travel

This, my fatheads, is the best thing about armchair travel.You get to put gorgeous photos taken by real travelers on your blog. With permission, of course.

Below, an orange tree on the back of a motor bike in Hanoi. The source is the blog Tofu Photography. He said I could.

This leads us to recap whatever we know about citrus fruits -- since we hardly care a rap about travel -- even as we sip today's delicious cocktail. It's another rum sour. By the way, dear things! I mean, my fatheads. Let me tell you, we here at At First Glass Pluot have also discovered that James Bond was quite wrong about his martinis. They must be stirred, not shaken. At least I assume they must, if the ingredients of a martini behave anything like the ingredients of the revelatory sour I now enjoy.

The revelation came one afternoon last week. All my drink-y things, including my cocktail shaker, were in the sink, dirty. I was forced to do my best with a big mug, a spoon, and some ice, along with my lemon juice, sugar, and an improvised jigger. This happened to be the novelty Star Trek-themed shotglass that I bought for a whole dollar at a Star Trek convention a few years ago. I meant it as a goofy keepsake for my boss but he didn't take it home for fear, I think, that his wife would yell at him about it. Now he's gone, I have it. It has hash marks on the side, progressing up through fantasy alcohol-stoicism levels from Human to Vulcan, Tholian, Andorian, Romulan, and Klingon. I should have thought Borg would be last, but the theme here is obviously TOS, The Original Series, and the Borg aren't a part of Kirk's worlds. Anyway this stirred rum sour turned out to be much warmer, due to less vigorous contact with less ice, than my usual shaken variety. I can tell you as a result it was far more tasty. We recall with a start that old cocktail mixing books do speak of the danger of "bruising" one's gin. Perhaps one can bruise, or at any rate anesthetize, rum and lemon juice, too.

And now, what can we recap about citrus fruits? Let us assemble a list of bullet points, mostly derived from Harold McGee's masterful On Food and Cooking. 
  • All citrus fruits are thought to derive from three parents; the citron, the mandarin orange, and the pummelo 
  • All these are from southern China and northern India
  • The citron is native to the Himalayas. It probably reached the Middle East by 700 BCE and the Mediterranean by 300 BCE
  • There are several types of "mandarin" orange, including a Mediterranean type called tangerine from Tangier, Morocco (19th century)
  •  The pummelo requires the most warmth, and is not seen much outside tropical Asia (query, does the man on the bike carry a pummelo tree?)
  • Our familiar sweet eating orange may be an ancient hybrid between the mandarin and the pummelo
  • Medieval crusaders brought oranges -- sour ones -- back to Europe from the East
When we venture beyond oranges into the complexities of lemons and limes, the citrus web becomes even more tangled.
  • The lime (that is, the basic or Bearss lime) is a hybrid between a "true" Mexican or Key lime, and the citron. According to Waverley Root's Food,  a lime is essentially a type of lemon. Limes even turn yellow if left to ripen on the tree. For what it's worth, my well-traveled gentleman friend affirms that limes, not lemons, are the citrus of heat-plagued (or heat-blessed?) Mexico.
  • The lemon is believed to be a two-step hybrid, that is, -- someone crossed a citron with a (true, Mexican) lime; and then bred the product of that with a pummelo. Possibly done in the Middle East.
  • Lemons were first seen in the Mediterranean around 100 CE.
  • But --  there are "many varieties of true lemon."
  • The most common lemon in the U.S, the Meyer, was first produced in California in the early 20th century; it may have been a cross between "the lemon" and either an orange or a mandarin.
  • The ponderosa lemon is a lemon-citron cross.
The mystery figure in all this is the lime. If the lime is "a type of lemon," but the lemon is a "two-step hybrid" one of whose grandparents was a "true" or Mexican or Key lime, then what is and whence comes that true lime? How was a "Mexican" fruit available such that lemons, with their lime grandparent, could first be seen in the Mediterranean around 100 BCE?

We leave this, for the moment, for grander souls and plant geneticists to investigate. All we can be sure of given this wealth of information is that citrus fruits, whatever their parentage, are indispensable to the joy of life. They make after-work "sours." They make sweet morning pick-me-up juices. Their tartness brightens savory cream sauces and sugary icings, they pair as well with fish and coconut as they do with tea and eggs. Their clear jewel colors of topaz, peridot, and, well, lemon-yellow make a charming artistic motif in your kitchen. Nestled among the glossy, shivering lush greenery of their own tree they look smashing on the back of a bicycle in Hanoi. Below, a few of them group themselves in jewel-toned dignity on your grandmother's hammered tin tray.

Let's close with an appropriately named cocktail for this time of year, the Spring Fever from our master Charles Schumann's American Bar. It's a feast of citrus, including the blood orange, which we haven't discussed yet. We forgot the grapefruit, too. Look closely and you will see that the Fever also is virgin. No reason you can't add a jigger of gin, or something equally nice.

Spring Fever
  • 3/4 ounce (half a jigger) lemon juice
  • 3/4 ounce (half a jigger) mango syrup
  • 1 and 1/2 ounce (a jigger) pineapple juice
  • 2 ounces (a bit less than two jiggers -- you can visualize it) blood orange juice 
Stir in a mug with a few ice cubes and strain into a collins glass ("filled with ice cubes"? We think not. Why dilute the beauty of these flavors, especially when you have improved them all with a good jigger of something, shall we say, meaningful?).

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