Sweet and Hot Pickled Orange Slices
A favorite addition to cold-meat and snack platters all over the Four Realms
"About as scarce as North Arlene oranges," goes a commonplace saying in the Middle Kingdoms. And when it comes up in conversation, the casual listener needs to understand that sarcasm's very much in play—as in North Arlen, by far the warmest of the Four Realms, oranges are about as much in short supply as they are in Southern California. Nor, it should be added, are they all that hard to find elsewhere.
This is because oranges are probably the single fruit on the Kingdoms' continent with the broadest range... a condition achieved without all that much help from humans. The reasons for this remain indeterminate. But one likely culprit is the tendency of citrus varieties, on that alternate Earth as on ours, to readily hybridize with very different family members—thereby spreading around traits that either benefit the plants themselves, or the humans who cultivate them: sometimes both.
As a general rule, the larger-fruited citrus breeds on the Kingdoms' continent (citron, sourthorn, pomelo, various others) lean toward the bitter and sour end of the flavor spectrum. Smaller citrus fruits there, however, generally run sweeter, and as a result have been somewhat more enthusiastically spread and cultivated both by orcharders and in home gardens for casual eating and cooking uses. In terms of flavor, texture, and general physical characteristics, a visitor from our Earth would immediately recognize members of this group as oranges. But color words tend not to be used for them in the Kingdoms, because their rinds are just as likely to be yellow-green or green. Right across the Realms' language groups, the proper name for these fruits comes from one or another compound of words for "small" and "sweet": Darthene ndelkaith, Steldene telnethrak, Arlene and North Arlene khuintell, Ladhain elteft.
Most popular of these not-always-oranges is a variety referred to as the "hen's-egg sweetfruit" (for its size) or "jewel orange". This fruit corresponds very closely to our Mandarin orange, Citrus reticulata, and is similarly sweet, thin-skinned and easy to peel. Considering the jewel orange's wide range across the breadth of the Kingdoms—practically from Lamaith in far western Arlen and the cooler southern regions near Egen, to the furthest east along the drier Brightwood coasts abutting the great Waste—an our-world botanist might be tempted to think that the Kingdoms-native variety had hybridized with local versions of the Owari satsuma (Citrus unshiu Marcovitch) or the Trovita orange (Citrus x sinensis), or possibly both. This would account for the jewel orange's unusual cold tolerance and ability to thrive in drought-adjacent conditions.
In any case, the fruit, when not fresh, turns up all over the place in numerous confections and tracklements, and is routinely preserved in honey or sugar syrups—especially in the subtropical north where sugar cane is widely grown or harvested. Because oranges' cross-Kingdoms growing season is so prolonged, they're not as aggressively preserved as some other fruits are. And when they are, the emphasis seems more on including them as an ingredient in condiments.
The approach described in this recipe is a common one, caught about halfway between what we might consider a pickle and a chutney. The oranges are sliced and cooked down to tenderness in a vinegar and sugar syrup that's augmented with a range of spiceries according to the cook's preference and their region's favored options. "Sweet" spices such as cinnamon and mace are favorites; so are spices and additions with more perceived heat, such as pepper, allspice, and various chiles. The finished pickle is then bottled in boiled containers that are sealed and baked in an approximation of our world's more basic canning techniques.
On opening, the pickled oranges are used as a condiment with meat dishes, or served alongside cheeses and preserved meats, in company with breads or savory cakes for casual nibbling. Our snack plate above attempts to get close to a typical early-evening Darthene one, meant to fill in some of the gaps left after an earlier, more substantial daymeal. The plate features an assortment of sliced sausages (some our-earth Morliny sliced Krakovska standing in for the ubiquitous mild Darthene pork-and-beef meíntë sausage), a local sharp cheese—in this case one of the fabulous Lithuanian Dziugas cheeses, which have a natural affinity for fruit very like that of the famous middle-Darthene deithémnië "salt cheese"—and a thin-link, hot-smoked chicken and pork sausage. The orange condiment might have bread sticks dipped in it, or (as here) be sandwiched between bits of meat.
- 18 mandarin oranges or 12 small navel oranges, cut into 6mm slices (if you use navel oranges, you'll need to seed them carefully)
- 1 liter / 1 quart white wine vinegar
- 1 kg / 2.2 pounds sugar
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 1 tablespoon whole cloves
- 2 blades mace
- 2-4 allspice berries
- 6-12 black peppercorns
- 2-3 buds of long pepper (Piper longum) (optional, but definitely desirable if you can get them)
- 6 cayenne chilies (or 10-12 birdseye chilies)
After slicing and (if necessary) seeding your oranges...
...place the slices in a non-reactive saucepan with enough water to cover them. Bring them to a boil, and then reduce the heat to a slow simmer.
If you're using Mandarin oranges, simmer the slices for an hour and a half, until their peel is tender. Navel oranges will take longer because of their thicker peel: at least two hours, and maybe two and a half. Check them for tenderness at intervals.
Once the oranges and their peels are sufficiently tender to suit you, add the vinegar, sugar and spices to the pot. Cook until the sugar dissolves, stirring gently. Then bring the whole mixture to a boil, and keep it boiling on high heat for three minutes
Pour the syrup off into a heatproof container, and save it. Put half the orange slices back in the pan, just barely cover them with some of the reserved syrup, and simmer them until they turn clear (or at least translucent). This normally takes about half an hour.
When these slices are finished, remove them with a slotted spoon to a shallow pan or high-rimmed dish. Meanwhile put the remaining slices in the pan, with more syrup to cover them, and cook as you did the previous batch. When finished, put them in the pan or dish with the first batch, cover it, and leave overnight in a cool place. Reserve the cooking syrup, too.
The next day, boil all the reserved syrup in a saucepan for 15-20 minutes, until well thickened. Reduce the heat; then carefully add the oranges and their associated spices, and slowly bring once more to a gentle boil. Reduce the heat once more and keep the pot's contents hot while preparing for the final stage of this process.
Prepare sterilized jars, rinsing them out one last time with boiling water and draining them on a clean towel. Then ladle the oranges, spices and syrup into the jars, and seal them tightly.
Leave this fruit pickle for at least a month to mature and develop its flavors. It should keep well for at least a year, developing character all the while—meaning that, the longer you can keep it, the hotter and more delicious it'll become.