Fruit of the season

A drinker’s suggestions for a Simhat Torah celebration

October 19, 2011 16:52
A shopper carefully makes his selections at a shop

Holiday Drinking 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

After Succot, observant Jews find alternative uses for the etrog (citron) used to fulfill one of the holiday commandments. One of the more common etrog post-holiday products is citron jam, made by boiling the fruit with sugar and adding preservatives.

A slightly more exotic option is citron tea, for which the citron is finely sliced, added to a mixture of sugar and honey and placed in a cup with boiling water.

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However, one of the oldest citrus-based products in the Mediterranean basin is a group of distilled alcoholic beverages made from various fruits grown in different parts of the region.

Some, like Limoncello and Kitron, are best drunk straight or on ice and are not particularly well known in the world at large. However, others, such as triple sec Curaçao, are used to make popular cocktail mixes, such as the Cosmopolitan and Margarita.

At the well-stocked bar of recently opened Tel Aviv celebrity chef restaurant Mizlala located on the fashionable Nahalat Binyamin Street, manager Yoash Meizel explains the importance of citrus-based liqueurs when celebrating holidays or any other important occasion.

“Citrus, specifically liqueurs such as Cointreau and Grand Marnier, add pleasant aromas as well as some vitality and summery character to the taste of cocktails when present,” says Meizel.

Along with the more ubiquitous aniseflavored ouzo and raki, Naxos Kitron is one of the three officially recognized national liquors of Greece. Kitron is produced from the distilled leaves of what religious Jews call the Corfu etrog. The Corfu etrog was traditionally cultivated on several of the Greek islands and largely exported to European Jewish communities for use on Succot. Besides its namesake – the Ionian island of Corfu – the other major growing center was and still is located on Naxos, the largest island in the Cyclades group, which lies in the Aegean Sea between Greece and Turkey.

Greece is no longer a significant exporter of etrogim and the cultivation of the citron has correspondingly declined in favor of other crops, but the distillation of the tree’s leaves continues on Naxos, with production centered on the village of Halki in the island’s mountainous interior.

Citron liqueur is produced by two separate family-run distilleries, Vallindras and Promponas.

Better known and open for public tours, the Vallindras distillery in Halki was established in 1896 and has since regularly produced three different grades of Kitron distinguished by their coloring and alcohol content. Yellow Kitron is the driest with alcohol content at 36 percent by volume (abv). Clear or white Kitron contains a slightly milder 33% abv, while green Kitron is the sweetest and least alcoholic at 30% abv.

With a taste somewhere between that of orange and lemon, the sweeter grades of Kitron are often enjoyed leisurely by connoisseurs as a digestif, while the stronger and drier yellow Kitron, often drunk straight as a shot, goes down much more easily than most hard liquors, such as whiskey and vodka, that can leave potent sour or bitter aftertastes in the mouth, of which Kitron has none.

The second alcoholic gift of Mediterranean citruses is the very Italian Limoncello. This liqueur is traditionally made from the peel of the Sorrento lemon and can be found in ready supply throughout most of southern Italy from the Gulf of Naples to the islands of Sicily and Sardinia, with the area around Amalfi being the center of production.

The area surrounding the town of Menton in the French department of Alpes-Maritimes along the French Riviera, long known for its large annual crop of lemons, also produces Limoncello due to the favorable growing climate in the immediate vicinity of the town.

Called sfusato amalfitano in Italy, Sorrento lemons are typically long and at least double the size of most other lemons, with a thick and wrinkled skin and a sweet and juicy flesh without many seeds. When distilled into Limoncello, the resulting drink is usually served chilled during the hot summer months and drunk as a digestif or between courses to cleanse the palate.

The growing season for the Sorrento lemon is between February and October, with the harvest beginning in October around the time of Succot. This date may not be coincidental, as one legend conjectures that this particular lemon was first introduced to Italy around the first century BCE by Jewish immigrants to serve as a source of etrogim for the holiday.

The Sorrento lemon is one of Menton’s official symbols. Since 1934, the local inhabitants have held an annual lemon festival at the end of the harvest in February where lemon-based foodstuffs and beverages, including Limoncello, can be purchased in abundance.

The third citrus liqueur, found in the greater Mediterranean region, Curaçao, has a decidedly more modern and Jewish heritage. Triple sec Curaçao and the closely related Grand Marnier, which is made from a blend of cognacs and essence of the bitter laraha fruit, are all different brands of Curaçao liqueur made from the bitter Aurantium currassuviensis, meaning “golden orange of Curaçao,” known locally as laraha.

While the fruit and liqueur come from the Caribbean island of Curaçao, their heritage is both Jewish and Mediterranean.

After Curaçao was discovered by the Spanish in 1499, the colonists who settled on the island brought with them Valencia oranges as well as several other new crops and animals to develop the area’s agricultural potential. However, the soil and climate on the island were poorly suited for orange orchards, and several growing seasons only produced stunted, bitter fruit.

Seeing the poor results, the colonial farmers stopped caring for the Valencia orange trees, letting them grow wild until they evolved into their own unique and inedible fruit, the laraha.

Eventually, some of the island residents discovered that the dried peels of these wild fruits could be used to produce aromatic oils and food additives. By the midto- late 19th century, the Sephardi Senior family (who originally settled on the then Dutch-controlled island, fleeing the Spanish Inquisition) discovered that these peels could be distilled into a pleasant tasting alcohol, creating Curaçao liqueur.

Senior & Co. still produces the liqueur at the country mansion of Chobolobo near the town of Salinja on the island.

Typically containing between 30% and 40% abv, Curaçao liqueur has a clear hue immediately after it is produced, but like Kitron, food coloring is then added. The most popular colors are blue and orange.

Triple sec may be drunk neat as a digestif or on the rocks, but nowadays is mostly used in making cocktails.

Around the same time that the Seniors were developing their liqueur on Curaçao, several French companies were developing their own liqueurs using the bitter oranges found in the Caribbean. The Combier family distillery in Saumur, France, lays claim to creating the first triple sec as earlier as 1849, using bitter oranges procured from Haiti.

Grand Marnier also uses bitter oranges to make its famous liqueur, most often used today as a key ingredient in crème brulée and Crêpes Suzette.

For all those celebrating Simhat Torah this year with a few l’haims, consider pouring yourself a Margarita or procuring a nice bottle of limoncello.

Nothing could be more appropriate for the holiday.

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