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Citrus review by Haaretz

Subscribe to Print Edition | Thu., March 06, 2008 Adar1 29, 5768 | | Israel Time: 17:25 (EST+7)

Pure gold
By Ronit Vered

In the beginning there were apparently only three: the etrog (citron), the pomelo and the mandarin. Today there are dozens of fruits and thousands of species of citrus fruit in the world, but modern genetic research indicates only these three as the family's original primeval ancestors. In ancient times, the three existed in nature as wild trees; all the rest are the product of mutations that occurred by chance and received enthusiastic encouragement from mankind, or hybrids - the product of crossbreeding among the various species.

Some of the mutations and the crossbreeding took place very early. The orange, recorded in Chinese culture over 1,000 years ago, is the product of crossbreeding a mandarin with a pomelo. Some of them are later developments: The grapefruit, which appeared in the Caribbean in the 17th century, is the product of crossbreeding a pomelo with an orange. The Clementine is one of the babies in the family, and not only due to its size. It is named after the person considered its inventor, Father Clement Rodier, a French missionary who was sent to Algeria in the 19th century to bring the Gospel to the Muslims. But even when it comes to a fruit that came into the world relatively close to our own times (between 1892 and 1904), it is not easy to separate myth from fact. Nobody can say with certainty whether the monk and his colleagues in the order, who ran an orphanage, came across the mutation spontaneously or were involved in crossbreeding and therefore invented the Clementine.

Pierre Laszlo, a French professor of chemistry, has written a fascinating book in which he tries to trace the spread of citrus fruits in the world. This journey passes through marvelous stops along the way. There are the etrog orchards of the Levant, which spread because of religion, in this case Judaism. There is the story of the scurvy- stricken fleet of British Admiral George Anson, who embarked on a trip around the world in the 18th century with six ships and 2,000 sailors in order to prevent Spanish domination of the commercial routes. The fleet returned with one ship and fewer than 200 sailors, because his competitors were aware of the strategic-economic value of the secret of curing scurvy - lemon juice - and denied Anson and his men the simple treatment.

One of the most beautiful chronicles of the history of citrus in any language is in Hebrew. The album "Pri Etz Hadar" (Citrus Fruits) written by Shaul Tolkovsky, which was published by the Bialik Institute in 1966, is based on the book "The Hesperides" which Tolkovsky wrote in English and published in London in 1938. Copies of the English edition have become rare because most of the books burned in the warehouses of the publisher during the German aerial attack on London in 1940. Copies of the Hebrew edition are available today only in secondhand bookstores.

Because up-to-date DNA studies were not available to Tolkovsky, the scientific data in his book is somewhat outdated. His detailed study, the product of an entire life dedicated to the field, is based on linguistic and cultural analyses of ancient sources - documents and works of art - that refer to the citrus family. His journey visits ancient Chinese and Indian poems, Persian gardens surrounded by orchards and Italian Renaissance villas. Anyone seeking a more active adventure can visit two places where various parts of this complex story come to life.

1. Pierre Laszlo, "Citrus: A History" (University of Chicago Press, 2007). 2. "Pri etz hadar: Toldotav betarbut ha'amim, bisifrut, beomanut ubefolklor, mi'yemai kedem ve'ad zmanenu" (The Citrus: Its History in National Culture, Literature, Art and Folklore, from the Middle Ages to the Present), Shaul Tolkovsky (Bialik Institute,1966).

There is nothing like the sight of oranges individually wrapped in thin paper and bearing seals, to squeeze the juices of nostalgia for the golden age of Jaffa oranges. Anyone who touches the piles of original papers found in the orchard museum in Rehovot, will discover that they are pinkish in color and exude a strong sweetish smell that is not particularly pleasant. The source of the smell is a chemical substance that repels insects and rot, which was essential at a time when the oranges underwent a long journey, by camel and ship, before reaching their destination. The fear that one rotten orange would spoil the entire crate was what led to the careful packaging, by hand, of each individual orange. This was done by dozens of workers, all of them members of the respected union HaOrez (meaning "the packer"), which even published an elegant book explaining the regulations of the union of Hebrew packers in the Land of Israel and the sacred work of its members.

The Minkov orchard, planted by Zalman Minkov in 1904, was the first orchard in Rehovot. In the heart of a belt of orchards planted on the ancient Via Maris leading from Egypt to Mesopotamia, he constructed the buildings of the farm surrounded by a wall. There was a guard house, stables, a packing plant and a complex irrigation system. The ground water was pumped from a huge well dug in the inner courtyard: It was 23 meters deep, the height of an eight-story building, and it was over six meters in diameter. Today one can walk above this terrifying maw on a transparent glass floor that was built during the process of renovation and restoration. The well water was channeled via an aqueduct dug in the gravel wall to a large irrigation pool, and from there to a ramified network of ditches dug around the bases of the citrus trees.

Zalman Minkov died tragically on the day his daughter Zalma was born, and his musically talented wife, who became impoverished, returned to Switzerland and sold the orchard to Moshe Tolkovsky. His contemporaries said that Moshe's son, an extroverted young agronomist - our friend Shaul Tolkovsky - liked to tour the area in a small carriage harnessed to a pair of noble horses, play the violin at night at the edge of the irrigation pool, and also to play practical jokes. The poet Rachel and other famous celebrities of the Hebrew labor movement also worked among the trees of the orchard. Its beautiful irrigation pool served as an inspiration for a short story by S. Yizhar, who wrote that "anyone who is unfamiliar with the experience of swimming in a clear pool, on the afternoon of a clear day, with everything green and blue all around, you can't explain anything to him."

This orchard changed hands many times over the years, until it was uprooted, like most of the city's orchards and the crumbling farm buildings were surrounded by residential and industrial structures. In the mid-1990s, a start on preservation and restoration was made possible with the help of a donation from the Swiss descendants of Zalma Minkov, and included a little museum, where they are still working on big plans to commemorate the local citrus culture. Alongside the gravel wall they planted an attractive orchard of various types of citrus fruit from all over the world, and the lovely entrance gate was accurately restored with the help of three 1913 photos that were discovered in the archive of photographer Avraham Suskin.

In about a week, a small temporary exhibit from the works of Yaakov Ben Dov, who worked as a guard in the orchard before he became one of the founders of the photography department in the Bezalel - Academy of Arts and Design, and in his photographs documented the innocent orange days of Jaffa and the area.

The Minkov Museum, the first orchard in Rehovot, entry from Avinoam Nahmani Street (next to the Ayalon Institute), Rehovot, (08) 946-9197

At the age of 16, Moshe Wallach asked for a guava tree for his birthday. His parents, who wanted to pamper him, got him a strawberry guava tree. That was the beginning of a life devoted to collecting exotic trees. Wallach's private collection grew over the years on a farm on Kibbutz Ein Shemer, alongside a nursery of citrus fruits for farmers, until it became his main occupation, and a nursery of exotic fruits from all over the world for the general public. Among hundreds of types and species of fruit trees, a large section is now devoted to citrus fruits, which is a paradise for chefs and amateur gourmets.

There is bergamot orange here, which means "prince's pear." The aromatic essence produced from its peel was used to create the favorite perfume of Madame du Barry, mistress of Louis XV, and to produce Earl Grey tea. There is fingered citron or Buddha's hand, whose curved "fingers," which emit a strong perfume, were placed in Chinese homes as early as the seventh century. There is Japanese yuzu; Tahitian lime; lemon caviar and dozens of other species of citrus fruits of various colors and sizes. Some have a very thick peel that is suitable for producing sugared sweets and jams, while others are at their best when eaten fresh from the tree or used for cooking and pickling.

Anyone with the self control to refrain from buying a tree comprised of four different species of lemons and limes that ripen at different times and provide fresh fruit during most of the year, is a real hero. Those who are weaker and poorer and cannot afford to purchase the grafted trees, can satisfy the urge with a tree of red-cheeked Shamouti blood oranges, a local mutation of the species that made Jaffa oranges famous and appeared in the orchards of Petah Tikva in the early 20th century. This is a wise long-term investment: an entire lifetime of drinking the juices of this tasty orange, and enjoying the sensual fruit that comes in a rainbow of colors ranging from reddish-orange to scarlet-purple.

With a little bit of luck, Moshe Wallach will also get to share the spotlight with Father Clement. The crossbreeds and species he is developing may one day lead to a new species of fruit named after him. Meanwhile, he and his family offer workshops to the general public on grafting and developing species, primarily in the name of the idealistic belief in a multiplicity of species and tastes, which has not yet managed to infect the public. In a square in the yard of the wild, beautiful jungle of the nursery they sell bottles of limoncello and homemade ice cream (without preservatives) made from real fruit, produced by Tzur Barkan, Moshe's son-in-law and a professional chef. The flavors include, depending on the season and ripening times, a wonderful sorbet made of blood oranges, a green tea ice cream and an ice cream made from rice milk and cassia, a fruit from the guava family that originates in Central America.

Moshe Wallach Fruit Trees Nursery, at the entrance to Kibbutz Ein Shemer, 04-6372477, www.fruit.co.il

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