O is for Oranges

   Posted by: Lynne Foley   in Medieval Miscellany

A yummy Scrabble Talk on the letter “O”.

The 14th August meeting – and my scrabble letter talk drawing nigh – I was visited with inspiration when Kim brought home some oranges in the shopping.  Could this fruit be the basis of a talk?

My research revealed that oranges are first heard of growing wild in China and later cultivated there, from where they found their way to India. The Moors are thought to have planted oranges across North Africa in the first century AD.  Oranges were also known to the Romans, who imported the young trees to the port of Ostia.  But with the fall of Rome in the fifth century AD, the  Roman trade and cultivation of oranges died out for centuries.

Oranges were introduced into Spain and by the 13th century, orange groves could be found from Seville to Granada, and eventually, the fruit found its way to England.

Patio de los Naranjos (“Orange Tree Court”), Cathedral, (former Great Mosque), Córdoba, Spain (photo D Preis)

One source states that in medieval times, fresh fruit was viewed with some suspicion, mostly considered as being fit only for the poor.[1]  Monastic gardens, and the gardens of the aristocracy as we know from Dorothea’s talk, grew a wide range of fruit though I have not found a reference to oranges.[2] However, in the book  Noble Lovers, there is an illustration from a Flemish manuscript dating from about 1500, Roman de la Rose, entitled ‘Dreamer enters the Garden,’ which shows orange trees, centre rear.[3]

Medieval oranges were not the sweet oranges of our time. They were bittersweet – if you were to mix equal quantities of orange and lemon juice, this would be an approximation of the taste.  By the fifteenth century, although the sweet orange was making its appearance, it was not used in cookery until the following century – therefore, all the recipes from Richard’s time, would refer to bittersweet oranges.[4]

There are recipes for the candying of fruit – this was done by using honey, but by the mid-sixteenth century, sugar took over as the crystallising agent, still used today.

I must mention Johannes Bockenheim (or Buckenhen,) cook to Pope Martin V who in the 1430s, wrote an  ‘original ‘cookbook.  A feature of this book was to specify the destined consumer of a dish by social class including prostitutes as well as princes – or by nationality, even down to the provinces of a country.[5]

I would like to share with you his recipe for Orange Omelette:

Take eggs and break them, with oranges, as many as you like; squeeze their juice and add to it the eggs with sugar; then take olive oil or fat, and heat it in the pan and add the eggs.[6]

The modern version of this recipe follows the original closely, specifying 6 eggs, 2 oranges, 1 lemon and 2 tablespoons each of sugar, olive oil and salt.

So, for whom did Bockenheim feel this dish was suitable?  Ruffians and brazen harlots.  I am not suggesting that any of the present company falls into either category, but for those planning an evening of debauchery in the future, Orange Omelette, The Medieval Kitchen assures us, will provide an unusual and pleasant dessert.[7]

There is a recipe found in The Good Huswifes Handmaid for Cookerie in her kitchen, complied in 1558, for an apple and orange tart, which from reading the recipe, sounds delicious.[8]

Histoire et culture des orangers, by A Risso and A Poiteau, 1872

The food settled, what about something to drink? The original recipe for Orange Wine, admittedly from a much later period, featured in Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery, published in 1747, calls for 12 pounds of the best powder-sugar, and the juice and rinds of 50 oranges, but not the white part of the rinds…

Again, there is a modern version of this recipe, beginning with 150g each of icing sugar and sugar.  Such amounts of this substance make me shudder, but perhaps the other ingredients balance this out – 12 large glasses of wine can be obtained from this recipe.[9]

I have found a few recipes in which oranges, rather than being a main ingredient, are used in sauces, such as chicken with orange sauce, and in a weak honey drink, known as Small Mead.[10]

In conclusion, oranges were not unknown in Richard’s day, and may have graced his table in various ways, such as in pies, sauces, or candied.  I would ask you to recall for a moment, Bockenheim’s classification for Orange Omelette…I think this a dish eminently suitable for Henry VII.


1.    Middle Ages Food – Fruit
2.    Preis, Dorothea,  Medieval Gardens.  Talk given to NSW Branch, Richard III Society, 2010
3.    Owen, D. D. R., Noble Lovers.  NY Universty Press, 1973, facing page 64.  You can find the picture online here.
4.   Fruit in Medieval Europe
5.    Redon, O. et al,  The Medieval Kitchen. University of Chicago   Press, 1998, p. 185
6.    ibid.
7.    ibid., p. 115
8.    The Good Huswifes Handmaid for Cookerie in her kitchen
9.    Historical Foods, “Orange Wine Recipe”
10.    Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir


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