I was asked recently to participate in a Wall Street Journal article that discussed the powerful significance food and drink around Christmas. As a culture, the taste and feel of juicy turkey or the aroma of mulled wine has become as much an intrinsic part of the festive season as trees in our living rooms and queuing at the Post Office.
It seems obvious when you think about it, but Christmas is the only time of the year where nearly everyone eats and drinks exactly the same things. Like festive zombies we all head out and buy pretty much the same ingredients and make pretty much the same dinners. For me, Christmas simply wouldn't be the same without the smell of cracked hazelnuts accompanied by a wince of pain as I realise I've caught some skin in the jaws of the nutcracker. Hazelnuts are pain, as far as I am concerned.
But nothing gets my senses going like chomping through a netted bag of clementines. That squirt of acid in your eye as the oil-rich skin is peeled back to reveal never-before-seen, juice-filled segments that break away like slow roasted lamb.
There is something wholly festive about the unique ritual of a satsuma, clementine, tangerine or even one of those undefined 'easy peelers' that the supermarkets are selling this year. Then there's the monneola, tangelo or even ugli. But what the hell is the difference between all these fruits, and why do some of them taste like Christmas wrapped up in orange skin, and others bland, watery, insipid and full of pips?
And how should we use these fruits in cocktails? I have assigned scores for each fruit based on my own experiences buying from a variety of difference sources.
Let's get one thing straight from the start, all of the previously mentioned fruits are members of the mandarin family though can vary based on their country of origin, ripeness, individual varietal and a whole host of other reasons.
These get their name from China, where they have for a long time been an important part of culture, trade and celebration. Generally mandarins have pips, which is one way of differentiating them from their diverse offspring.
Sweet/Sour balance: 3.5
Notes: The original player, widespread and easy to source. Just watch out for the pips.
These bad boys are probably the most widespread mini-orange around Chirstmas time. They are a seedless variety of the mandarin (crossed with a sweet orange), with thin skin coated in a festive smelling oil slick, and a bright orange appearance. Segments are generally tightly packed, with just enough juice and a good flavour.
Sweet/Sour balance: 4.5
Notes: Thin skin can sometimes be difficult to peel, but the flavour is excellent with an almost fizzy tartness and nice long finish.
Easily characterised by their thick, pale, flappy skin (you know the one), that almost falls off the fruit. Underneath you'll find delicate segments with plenty of juice, but often lacking in zing.
Sweet/Sour balance: 2.5
Notes: What seems like a godsend when peeling can lead to disappointment during mastication.
Basically a clementine, but with seeds: in other words, it's pointless. If your fruit supplier or supermarket offers you cheap tangerines you'll now know why. Of course, if it's the skin oils, or juice you are planning on using that's fine, but don't buy them if you want to avoid the spitting pips in to your hand. One way to distinguish a tangerine from a clementine (this is important) is that the former tends to have slightly redder skin.
Sweet/Sour balance: 4.5
Notes: Don't bother (see clementine)
Possibly my favourite, but sadly not that easy to come by. My wife, Laura, managed to source some a couple of years back and in my mind that fruit was largely responsible for a very good Christmas. The minneola is a cross between a satsuma and a grapefruit. See what they did there? Easy to peel, but bags of juicy flavour and no pips. The best of all worlds and a damn fine example of a fruit that got its own way.
Sweet/Sour balance: 5+
Notes: The best argument for cross-breeding since the labradoodle.
The evolution from the minneola is the tangelo and the ugli. Both these fruits are crosses between the tangerine, grapefruit and orange, with the ugli being a bit more ugly (brown spots etc.), but slightly easier to peel. Expect to see balanced juiciness and an intense acidity from both fruits, but don't expect to find them in Asda.
Sweet/Sour balance: 5
Notes: Rarer than a minneola impaled on a golden hen's tooth, but worth it if you can track 'em down.
If you're going to use one of these fruits in a cocktail (and I really think you should), it's best to pick one that has the complete package (clementine or minneola).
Clearly there are a number of preparations that can be put together with the fruits:
Juices - obvious, could be used in a festive Blood & Sand, or Bronx.
Garnishing - Use the skin (and oil) for finishing a Christmas Manhattan, or Rob Roy.
Infusion - Use the skin for creating syrups, or liqueurs, or infusing in a bottle of Cognac, for example.
Dehydrate - Dry out thin slices and you'll be rewarded with vivid reds and oranges.
Distillation - If you have access to a rotavap or still, try making a clementine oil hydrosol and spraying it on drinks, guests, menus, napkins etc.
Nitro-Smash - Peel the fruit and freeze with liquid nitrogen, then smash it into tiny pieces, each of which will be a juice filled cell from the fruit. Let them defrost (this bit is important) and use them for garnishing.
The drink below is inspired by a train journey I once took at Christmas time, where upon waking from a quick nap I was sensory-assaulted by the sweet smell of what I thought could only be Ron Zacapa 23. In fact, rather like the old Bisto adverts, I would go as far to say that it was the smell of rum that woke me in the first place. It transpired that the source of the aroma was in fact a woman peeling a clementine (could have been a tangerine, I can't be sure) three seats behind me. After getting over the amazement of how easily the aroma reached me, it dawned on me that Ron Zacapa needed to be combined with this fruit for the good of mankind. Here it is:
Belle of St. Clements
Glass: Sherry copa
Garnish: Red currants, holly leaves and a twist of clementine zest. Finish with a dusting of icing sugar.
Method: Stir all ingredients down with cubed ice for 60 seconds then strain over crushed ice.
25ml Ron Zacapa 23
15ml Clementine (or Minneola) juice
5ml Pedro Ximenez Sherry
1ml (1 small dash) Angostura bitters
75ml Champagne or sparkling wine