“And a Bowl of Oranges Too”

Organic oranges for sale.

“Woke up, it was a Jávea* morning, and the first thing I knew,
There was milk and toast and honey and a bowl of oranges too.
And the sun poured in like butterscotch and stuck to all my senses.
Oh, won’t you stay
We’ll put on the day
And we’ll talk in present tenses.” — Joni Mitchell, with apologies

I grew up with a mom who loved Valencian oranges. Unlike all the other neighborhood kids’ moms, she never bought navel oranges. She viewed them as suspiciously perfect, with their unblemished skin, borderline unnatural orangey color, their spongy, easy-to-peel rind, and most of all, the lack of seeds. My mom was what people in the ’70s used to call a “health food nut.” She made lentil soup, stuffed cabbage, and her own chicken stock. Frozen pizza, Fritos, Frosted Flakes — all those things were never in our home. Instead of Wonder Bread, we had her homemade wholegrain. No Oreos either; she baked healthy cookies with whole wheat flour, oatmeal, and raisins. And Coke was Out. Of. The. Question. While I loved her food, I was embarrassed it wasn’t “normal.”

It bothered me because I already felt like a weird kid. It was bad enough our last name was “Misencik” in a sea of Halls, Stewarts, Taylors, and other phonetic and pronounceable Anglo names then the norm in 1970s Reston, Virginia. I would cringe each year, on the first day of home room when my teacher would call roll, get to “M,”and then pause, helpless, after tentatively inquiring,”Karen…?” It didn’t help I was pudgy, and with my pale skin I certainly didn’t tan like all my slim, pool-loving friends. I got glasses in fourth grade and braces (complete with full-on headgear), in sixth. I was hopeless in P.E. I wore a training bra through middle school.

We didn’t even vacation like normal families. No Rehoboth Beach or the Outer Banks for two weeks each summer like everyone I knew. Instead my historian father and free-spirited mom took us hiking on the Appalachian Trail or camping (camping!) up through Maine and Nova Scotia where we also learned about the Northeastern Native American tribes, my dad’s specialty. Once we took a fan boat trip through the Everglades where we did continual battle with the Palmetto bugs that flew in our face, and grew hoarse from hours of shouting at each other at the top of our lungs in a feeble attempt to be heard over the motor. I was a young teen and it took me 45 minutes just to fix my hair. Needless to say, I was miserable.

Montgo rising above orange groves.

But one thing I did love was the fresh squeezed juice my mom would make us from Valencian oranges. The name was so exotic, and seeds notwithstanding, the juice was delicious: sweet and pulpy. My brother and I could drink it by the quart. My dad’s job took us to Florida on a regular basis and although we mainly went to Miami, sometimes we would visit my Aunt Nora who lived near Tampa. She had orange and other citrus trees in her back yard, and I couldn’t believe my cousin was so lucky as to be able to pick a ripe orange, grapefruit, or lemon right off one the trees on their property. Even better than the taste of the fruit itself was the smell of the orange blossoms blooming in the spring. It was heady and delicate and evocative all at once. Sometimes, at the Ft. Lauderdale or Miami airport, my parents would give me some money to buy a little bottle of orange blossom perfume. It always came inside a seashell, topped with an artificial orange blossom and wrapped in cellophane. It made my 12-year-old self feel pretty and pool-ready. As a result of these experiences I developed an early love for anything orange-related that has lasted to this day. Orange is still my favorite taste, my favorite scent, and my favorite color.

A beautiful and fragrant orange blossom from one of the many groves near our house in Jávea.

Fast forward a few decades and I am now living in the Valencian region of Spain. Jávea, our town, is crescent-shaped; the middle filled by acres and acres of citrus groves full of the famous oranges. Orange vendors are everywhere in Jávea, many of whom also grow and sell lemons, tangerines, and grapefruits. They sell the fruit at stalls in farmers markets. They park their cars and trucks on shoulders of roads, set up handmade signs, and open their hatchbacks or truck beds to showcase mounds of freshly picked goodness. There’s even one local farmer who brings his fruit to town via a carriage drawn by two study work horses. Drive by any little bodega or one of the local shops selling baskets, ceramics, or garden supplies and bags of oranges will be hanging from the eaves, for just a couple of euros each. All through April and part of May, the smell of orange blossoms permeate the air, perfect timing as the blooms start coming in almost to the day when motorists are able to drive around with windows open. Cyclists and hikers are the luckiest as most choose to ride or walk on the orchard roads where the fragrance is the strongest. With oranges, often organic, available year round and at about 2-3 euros per kilo, the one thing that has been an absolute constant in our new lives is that every morning we squeeze fresh orange juice. It’s actually more expensive, not to mention far less tasty, to buy cartons in the grocery stores. Our trusty little no-frills Braun juicer is one of our new best friends.

Weekly orange haul with Montgo in the background.

My sister-in-law introduced us to our first supply source: a big-hearted British expat couple who live on a grove on the outskirts of town on land expansive enough to house all their many rescue animals. Each week a call would come out over Facebook asking for that week’s orders. The pick up location was the dusty parking lot of the local Caixa bank. They kept us in juicy goodness through the end of March, when their trees stop producing for the season. At first we panicked, thinking our supply was ending for the year. But then we realized that when one varietal is winding down, others begin producing. Fortunately, one afternoon we noticed a blue hand made sign on the garden wall of a house on the road from town going up to our neighborhood that read “Se venden aqui naranjas. 5 kg = 3 euros; 10 kg = 5 euros, ecologic” and pulled in through the gate. A woman in a house coat came out of the front door and with a smile waved us over to a shed in the garden. Inside were crates of oranges and lemons, and an old fashioned scale, the kind with the brass tray on one end, and on the other, lead weights in various sizes to determine the precise number of kilos. In broken Spanish we apologized for, clearly, interrupting her siesta, but she waved away our embarrassment and filled our order.

Fresh produce and scale

But by far our most favorite buying experience has been from a little place off an alley in the the Pueblo (the medieval city center), again a recommendation from my sister-in-law. The first time we wandered by we almost missed it. The “store” was a dark, windowless, garage-type structure maybe 9’x 15′, with a cement floor and walls. It smelled earthen and bit musty, like a root cellar. Along one wall, crates of oranges and lemons were neatly organized. Next to these was an ancient-looking brass scale, similar to the one the other vendor had in her shed. A saggy old chintz couch was pushed up against the adjacent wall, facing outward towards the door. We entered, blinking to adjust our eyes coming in from the bright sunshine.

Entering Don Tolo’s orange shop.

The vendor, an elderly man with a slight stoop and wearing a dress shirt and trousers, greeted us in a gentle, courtly manner. In our limited Spanish we indicated we would like 10 kilos. He smiled and pointed to a little hand-scrawled sign on the floor propped up against one of the crates advertising 5 kilos for 2 euros, saying to us over and over, “Bee-oh, bee-oh.” At first we were puzzled, then realized he was saying “Bio,” letting us know his produce was biologico or organic.  We watched as he slowly and methodically weighed the fruit. After we paid our four euros, he smiled at me and threw in two extra oranges. We’ve since been back at least a dozen times. By our third visit, we introduced ourselves. Although he knows almost no English and we are still beginners in Spanish, we manage to communicate quite well. His name is Bartolomo or “Tolo” for short, he lives on one of the many orchards in Jávea, and he prefers to speak Valencian rather than Castilian Spanish. He likes to talk American politics. We call him “Don Tolo” and at the end of each shopping trip, whenever we say “Gracias” with the Castilian pronunciation, he jokingly wags his finger and corrects us in the Valencian style that drops the “th” sound. For a month or so in late Spring, in addition to citrus, Don Tolo also sold exquisite little peaches, not much bigger than a walnut in the shell, but beautifully sweet and fragrant. He would sell us one bag with peaches so ripe we were instructed to start eating them on the way home (“Comen esto de camino a casa”) and another bag with those still needing a day or two. On every visit, he proudly shows us how his fruit is blemished; proof that it is indeed organic. And as always he thumps his chest, then looks up to the sky and crosses himself, pantomiming that good food and God keep him strong. I think he’s absolutely wonderful.

Don Tolo and his produce
Inside the shop

Needless to say, for many years now I have looked back with fondness on our family vacations and I realize how lucky my brother and I were to have these interesting trips.  Sure, we may have had to pay fifty cents for 120 seconds of cold water from the campground showers, but we also picked wild blueberries in the Maine woods with which we helped my mom make pancakes on our little propane camp stove. And my dad taught us the lyrics to The Eddystone Light, Hi Jolly, and The Battle of New Orleans, and showed us how to play Texas Hold ‘Em and Seven Card Stud on the picnic table by our tents using pennies as poker chips. We would play game after game until the last rays of the setting sun became too dim for us to clearly see the suits in our hands. More importantly, these trips challenged us to see the world in a new way. They brought us closer to nature, to history, to a wide variety of people, and to each other. For many years now, this has been my preferred way to travel. And I’m sure it’s the impetus for why I eventually moved to Spain.

It’s hard, sometimes, being so far away from many of the people I love most in the world. But making fresh-squeezed Valencian orange juice each morning makes me feel a bit closer to them. And in yet another way, I am turning into my mom. I now make her stuffed cabbage and lentil soup, although I will never be able to master her homemade bread (I’m hoping my cousin Julie will will assume that role). And for the record, I stopped buying navel oranges long ago, and Coke has always been Out. Of. The. Question.


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