The exact dates vary, but the Arabs are known to have introduced citrus to Sicily about 1,000 years ago. The fruit has been a mainstay on the island ever since. The trees grow easily in the warm climate and the juice is especially sweet when grown on the eastern part of the island, where the mineral-rich volcanic soil around Mount Etna nourishes the plants.
Blood oranges, in fact, do especially well in this area of eastern Sicily with groves dotting the landscape all around Etna, Siracusa and inland it Enna. By the way, I apologize for the picture above. It is not blood orange juice, but Sicilian juicing oranges juice. I happened to take a picture they day we squeezed these oranges, so there you go.
Anyway, blood oranges are highly prized in Sicily and are best this time of year, when they are at their most juicy. Unlike the blood oranges you can get in the U.S., which, to me, are good for juicing but rather dry and mealy for eating, Sicilian blood oranges are fantastic for juicing or peeling and eating. That’s why Sicilians call them “red gold.”
During the winter, you can go to any market in Sicily and you’ll see tables piled high, not only with “red gold” but all kinds of citrus grown on the island.
Finally, a note about the mafia and citrus. When we first started visiting Italy, I was surprised to find that the mafia had (has) a hand in citrus production. It seemed like such a labor intensive and archaic business for them to be involved in. But, involved they are.
First, the farms where the citrus is grown can provide a good hideout. They’re remote and, if they’re on a hill, provide a good line of sight to anyone paying a visit. Also, underground cisterns connected by tunnels which capture water to irrigate the trees during the long Sicilian summers provide an excellent hiding place should you be surprised by a nosy Carabinieri.
Second, citrus farming is extremely profitable. The quality of Sicilian oranges and lemons is unrivaled and command top dollar. Even if a farm wasn’t directly owned by the mafia, they often had men on the inside, working for farms where fruit would mysteriously disappear overnight.
Or, they would control the water supply, gouging farmers with exorbitant prices during the dry season. Decide not to play ball? Threatening letters start arriving in your mailbox. Maybe followed by your trees being cut down. Violence towards you or your family could follow.