Citrus, A History, book cover

Travels, Science and Culture of Oranges, Lemons, Limes, Grapefruits

Pierre Laszlo is a man of culture as well as being a scientist and it shows through in Citrus, A History which is a story, reference and an enticing literary work.

Pierre Laszlo has written Citrus, A History which tells the story of man’s migration of these tasty fruits from the Far East, China in particular, to the Americas. Most of the world’s citrus fruits and juices now come from the USA and Brazil and the book explains how that came about.

Cultural and Geographical Migration

Citrus fruits, especially the orange, were once the preserve of Kings, Emperors and the very wealthy yet are now part of the everyday diet of most people, at least in the developed world. Laszlo documents the story of the fruits’ geographical and social journey; often the writing is literary in its style. Nonetheless it is a fascinating and engaging history.

Science and Industrialisation

The author explains how science and industrialisation came to produce the Brazilian and American citrus fruit and juice industries which now dominate the world markets for citrus products. He also explores the hybrids, both natural and man-made, such as the Ugli or Minneola.

He also describes the chemistry of the flavour components that produce the citrus taste, the limonenes. He explains the essential oils in the skin, the terpenes (amongst others), that provide the smells and appear to act as an insecticide to protect the fruit. Other oils have long been as valuable as the fruit to makers of perfumes. This aspect would almost certainly have been missed by food writers – Laszlo is a professor of chemistry who can write for the non-scientist.

Food and Drink

Throughout the book are recipes usually associated with anecdotes from the writer’s widely travelled life. They are often characteristic of their country of origin and anyone with an interest in cooking will be tempted to try them. As with much traditional food most of the recipes are simple enough so anyone can share in Laszlo’s enthusiasm. His recipe for tarte au citron (lemon tart) works well.

Citrus Fruit in Art and Culture

The orange in particular has had symbolic, religious and cultural connotations which is reflected in the arts. Orange blossom features in many paintings as a symbol of the Virgin Mary and brides in France carried bouquets of orange blossom at their weddings well into the 20th century. The symbolism pre-dates Christianity as oranges and their blossom have a long tradition in most of the cultures that could grow it, and in many that had only heard the stories of the wondrous fruit. Laszlo covers this important aspect of the fruit with his erudite prose.

An Interesting Book in Every Sense

Pierre Laszlo’s Citrus, A History is an interesting book in several ways. It is certainly a book that will fascinate anyone interested in the origins of food and its cultural history. Its wonderful literary style will appeal to lovers of language as apart from the writing it makes some very esoteric literary references.

That alone would make Citrus, a very unusual book but there are also many times where the author’s academic credentials surface and the book explores aspects of the organic chemistry of citrus fruit. One does not need to be an organic chemist to appreciate the fascination. But it all goes to produce an unusual combination.

A Wonderful Book with Wide Appeal

No one element of the book’s character gets in the way so it can be enjoyed by a wide range of readers who will make Citrus, A History what they want. After reading the stories and anecdotes it will form a useful reference with some interesting recipes. This is all so well interwoven that it produces a wonderfully balanced and tasty melange of a book.

Citrus, A History (ISBN: 978-0-226-47026-9by Pierre Laszlo is published by University of Chicago Press at $25


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