Blood Oranges, 13 Sicily Super Fruit Facts

What's special about blood oranges? For starters, their crimson color has anti-cancer properties! Health, Origin, Taste, Types & Recipes.
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Do you remember your first taste of blood oranges? I do! It was 2008 and I was a Producer for HBO working on the True Blood series. Our marketing campaign included a blood orange soda called Tru Blood.

One day, after I launched five sites in quick succession for the series. The official HBO True Blood website, anti and pro-vampire websites, a vampire dating site, and a Tru Blood Beverage site. It was exhausting… and a blast.

My reward was to taste one of the first bottles of Tru Blood. How sweet!

Have your own fun first memory (oranges or True Blood)? Share it in the comments below!

Sufficient to say, topping my first memory would take something pretty epic. Something like tasting the fresh direct from the source during a month-long road trip through Sicily.

Sicilian Blood Oranges
Sicilian Blood Oranges

Blood Oranges

Blood oranges taste bright, sweet, and tangy with a subtle raspberry hint. Lower in acid than navel oranges, their juice is a staple on Sicilian breakfast tables. If taste alone hasn’t convinced you they just might be the perfect citrus fruit perhaps, their health benefits will. Thus this list of fun facts, and curated videos!

1. Blood Oranges Are Red Because of Anthocyanin

Oranges turn red because of standard oranges mutated. This mutation triggered Anthocyanin production, rarely seen in citrus fruits. Anthocyanins are a group of natural deep red, blue, and purple plant pigments. In other words, blueberries are blue for the same reason oranges are red. They both have Anthocyanins! So what is that mutation?

2. Ruby Gene Triggers the Production of Anthyocyanin

Scientists discovered blood oranges have two dominant Ruby alleles, RD-1 and RD-2. Alleles are forms of a gene that arise by mutation. Furthermore, the Ruby gene mutation triggers anthocyanin production.

Rubies signify passion, protection, and wealth. The following facts below illustrate why this gene name is sort of genius!

Sicilian Blood Oranges Sliced
Sicilian Blood Oranges Sliced

3. Blood Oranges Have Anti-Cancer Properties

Aside from their magical color-enhancing properties, Anthocyanins are a type of antioxidant with anti-cancer properties. Basically, they help your body clear out free radicals. Thus decreasing the chance cells will become cancerous.

4. Blood Oranges Are a Super Fruit

Anthocyanins also help reduce the accumulation of LDL cholesterol and have anti-inflammatory properties. Plus, blood oranges are loaded with enough vitamin C to make the list of Super Fruits by Healthline. Hello, Sicilian super fruit!

5. Blood Oranges Originated in Italy

Historians believe blood oranges originated in Sicily during Arab rule in the 9th and 10th centuries. More specifically, they first grew near Siracusa, in the Catania Plains, and near Enna. In these areas, the sun heats the plains during the day. While the cold Mediterranean winds sweep through at night.

Sicilian Volcano Mount Etna as Seen from Gangi, Sicily
Mount Etna as Seen from Gangi, Sicily

6. They Were First Documented in a Painting

The first documented evidence of blood oranges can be traced back to a painting by Bartolomeo Bimbi. An Italian still-life painter from Florence. In 1715, Cosimo III de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, commissioned Bartolomeo to paint flora and fauna works for the Medici Villa.

One was Melangoli Cedars and Lemons. Look to the bottom. Right in the middle you’ll see one sliced open, revealing scarlet flesh. Sort of beautiful no?!

Melangoli Cedars and Lemons Painting by Bartolomeo Bimbi
Melangoli Cedars and Lemons Painting by Bartolomeo Bimbi

7. Temperature Fluctuations Control How Red They Are

Plants produce Anthocyanins to protect themselves against environmental stressors like drought and cold temperatures. In other words, oranges won’t turn red without the cold. The need for cold explains why they thrive in Mediterranean climates. The swings from warm days into cool nights activate the Ruby gene and the production of Anthocyanin, which triggers the blushing red hues.

The red pigment starts to develop near the peel first. From there, it moves along the segments and finally spread into the flesh. They can show hints of red or flush red from rind to flesh. Because cool temperatures activate the pigments, they don’t always look the same. Temperature swings in the growing season, harvest times, and the variety itself all impact how red they become.

8. There Are Dozens of Blood Orange Varietals

Not all blood oranges look alike because there are dozens of varieties. The three most common are Moro, Tarocco, and Sanguinello.

Moro are notable due to their slightly oval-shape and bright orange rind flushed with red. Their deep crimson flesh has a sweet-tart flavor. Medium to large in size, they are the most common in the U.S.

In Italy, Tarocco are queen. More spherical in shape, they are easy to peel and seedless. Early harvests are typically lighter in color, but as the snow melts and the sun heats the plains, they grow redder by the day.

Finally, Sanguinelli are a Spanish varietal notable for having more seeds and an asymmetrical shape. Despite being the seediest, Sanguinelli has the reddest rind of all and a flesh that’s nearly purple.

9. Royalty Bogarted Them

Because blood oranges are beautiful and delicious, they were naturally reserved for royalty. In time, money overruled the royals, and Sicilians began to export them. They are cultivated internationally in Mediterranean climates. Spain, Malta, California, Arizona, Texas, and Florida, to name a few.

10. They’re Trademarked

Blood oranges are so good they’re trademarked. True story. The PGI Mark is an origin trademark from the European Union. The trademarks is reserved for foods that meet strict quality, and reputation characteristics for production, processing, and preparation. All of which must be attributed to a specific geographic area.

11. Blood Oranges Are a Winter Fruit

You would think being a citrus fruit, they would be in season in summer. Nope! Instead, blood orange season starts in December and goes to April.

12. Blood Oranges Can be Seedless

Seeds are a bitter part of citrus but not Sicilian Tarocco! They join navel and clementines among the seedless forms of oranges. Another thing that makes blood oranges so appealing? They are easy to peel! Chefs also love how easily they segment since their medium to large size produces healthy-sized pieces. Plus they pair well with savory ingredients making them a flexible ingredient to have around.

Segmenting Sicilian Blood Oranges
Segmenting Sicilian Blood Oranges

13. Perfect for Savory Dishes

In Sicily, especially in and around Syracuse near the Ionian coast where they grow, Fennel salad with blood oranges and anchovy is a popular dish. It’s just one of many where their ability to pair perfectly with savory ingredients shines.

Subscribe to get the recipe in an upcoming post.

Sicilian Fennel and Blood Orange Salad with Anchovies
Sicilian Fennel and Blood Orange Salad with Anchovies

Blood Orange Recipes

Beyond peel-and-eat and juicing, the number of ways to use blood oranges at home is surprising! Because blood oranges have a balanced, complex, not too sweet or acidic flavor, they make great substitutes for other orange varietals.

Try taking any recipe that calls for citrus and consider swapping in blood oranges for a new twist. Blood oranges can brighten up recipes with a bit of citrus tang. They can be grilled, baked, candied, and jammed!

Here is a list of 32 blood orange recipes to make while they are in the season. Many of which are savory! Plus, the 10 best ways to use blood oranges from Insanely Good Recipes. Finally, cocktails from Olive magazine include a Blood Orange Margarita Recipe I’m making the minute I hit publish.

Blood Orange Video Playlist

This video playlist goes out to anyone else who has sweet memories of Sicily’s most famous fruit… or True Blood. Working on that series with Alan Ball was the highlight of my career. Tasting blood oranges fresh was a highlight of our trip to Sicily.

Blood Orange Video Playlist & True Blood Blood Orange Drink
Video Playlist

A look of pride comes over the face of every Sicilian we spoke to about their famous fruit. “They are not acidic at all!” “They are so sweet” “Ours are the best in the world!” “It’s like tasting the sun!”

They are not wrong.

To sum it all up, Sicilians have a lot to be proud of when it comes to blood oranges. First, blood orange’s red hue is so stunning it inspired still-life paintings for the Medici villa. Not too shabby.

Secondly, blood oranges are the perfect balance of sweet and tart. Easy to peel and eat or toss into savory dishes they are a joy to eat.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, blood oranges are healthy. High in antioxidants, nutrient-dense, cancer-fighting, cholesterol-lowering, and delicious, they are a true Super Fruit. 

References

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