The bitter orange (Citrus aurantium Lin.) is an ancient hybrid obtained by crossing two species of the Rutaceae family: the pomelo (Citrus maxima) and the mandarin (Citrus reticulata). It is a medium-sized tree that is native to tropical Asia and that is now widespread in the Mediterranean and Central and South America, particularly Cuba.
It differs from the sweet orange (Citrus sinensis) in that it has winged petioles and thorns on its branches. The oval leaves are particularly pointed and dark green in colour. The axillary flowers can be either solitary or in clusters and are characterised by an intense fragrance. The sepals are obtuse, oblong and white on both sides. The fruit is globular, around 7-9 cm in diameter. The skin is thick, rough, a deep orange colour; the seeds are large. The pulp has a bitter taste, and its juice is more acidic than that of Citrus sinensis.
The bitter orange has a particular importance in Cuban national cuisine. In the 19th century, “naranjada” was considered the national drink, and was prepared with sweet oranges from the city and bitter oranges from rural areas.
The fruits of the bitter orange are used as an irreplaceable condiment for soups, roast pork and cassava (also called manioc or yuca). It is essential in the preparation of mojo criollo, the basic sauce of Cuban cuisine, made with garlic, salt, onion, hot oil and bitter orange juice. The mesocarp, the white, spongy peel, is used to make sweets and preserves. In traditional Cuban medicine the leaves are consumed in decoctions for colds and its essential oil is used in foods and perfumes.
Citrus aurantium is a stimulant and appetite suppressant. In traditional Chinese medicine it is used to treat nausea and indigestion. It has also become popular as an ingredient for weight loss.
The bitter orange was once grown in all of the backyards and orchards in Cuba. It is still cultivated on the island today, but the national newspaper “Juventud Rebelde” reports that cyclones that hit Cuba between 2001 and 2005 damaged the citrus plantations. In Pinar del Río, in the west, they were reduced from about 5,000 hectares to just 1,000. The cyclones are not the only reason that there has been a reduction of citrus cultivation in Cuba, there are other factors such as severe drought and an increase in pests. Due to this reduced level of production, the bitter orange is now more expensive and only appears seasonally in local markets.