On my recent trip to southern Italy, where coffee was the drink of choice everywhere and tea an afterthought at best, I got to thinking about the splendid citrus fruits now in season there, orchards of which rolled as far as the eye could see, hugging the soil on the flatter lands below Mt. Etna, which had erupted only days before the trip. Blood oranges, in particular, flourish in that part of Italy and apart from enjoying them juiced or out of hand, as I did many times throughout the tasting tour, once back home, I had to seek California-grown varieties of the fruit (the Moro and Tarocco varieties are available here) to concoct a simple sweet ending to a meal. I knew that the tea would be Chinese, most likely a slightly smoky Keemun. And the method would be uncomplicated, as sometimes the best dishes are.
To recreate my musing, here’s how to proceed. Using a sharp, small, serrated knife, cut a thin slice from the top and bottom of each fruit so that the fruit stands firmly on the cutting surface. Then remove the peel and pith – the white layer under the skin – of however many fruits you wish to use (I count one per person for a generous serving). Follow the contour of the fruit as you remove the peel and pith. Now with the juicy fruit fully exposed, use the knife to remove the filets of orange, placing it to the right of each membrane that separates the segments. Using a gentle sawing motion, release each segment by first cutting toward the center of the orange and when there, making the second cut away from the center of the orange. Remove any pits as you encounter them. Each segment or filet should then release easily and intact. Reserve the filleted segments along with the juice that collects and chill until ready to serve the dessert.
Now comes the tea part to be done just before serving the dessert. Brew the tea as you would to drink it, using about 2 grams of leaf per 6 ounces of water. Steep for about 3 minutes, but taste as you go, to achieve a mellow, non-tannic brew. While the tea is still hot, sweeten lightly with a fragrant honey, such as lavender or whatever your local farmer’s market sells. Make sure that the honey is fully dissolved, but don’t overdo the sweetening as the flavor of the tea and the oranges should be complexed not masked. Float the segments in serving bowls and pour just enough hot tea over the fruit to barely cover (the orange segments should be clearly visible, with their fiery volcanic red and orange color). When the hot tea hits the cold orange segments, magical things happen, releasing the full floral personality of the fruit. And, in homage to the famous deep green Sicilian kind grown in the volcanic soil of the Bronte area, sprinkle a few coarsely chopped pistachios (the green, unsalted kind) over the fruit poking out from the tea. Serve immediately with a plain buttery cookie or shortbread of your choice. And as you dig in, raise a toast to the glories of travel and serendipity, two words that often come to mind when I think of tea.