Friends! Meet the Flying Dragon, a bitter hardy orange. Those small, golf-ball size fruits you see up there with all the blemishes are new to me, a discovery I made in the woods last fall. There's a house I walk by all the time on a bumpy dirt road near the bay, and last November I noticed what looked like oranges fallen all over the grass. I wanted to know: Could I eat them? If so, would the people who summered there mind if I went and collected the fruits from the ground?

To answer these questions I did what any reasonable nosey person would do: copied down the house number and looked it up in the assessor's database. This search led me to a name, which led me to some googling, which eventually led to some emailing. A year later this emailing has blossomed into a lovely, plant-based friendship. It turns out Sharon and her husband don't just have bitter hardy oranges, they also have currants and a special kind of European oak and concord grapes and a penchant for sharing. Despite the pandemic Sharon and I managed to actually meet this summer, standing at a good distance outside.  She offered currants and I made her some syrup for red currant margaritas, and she told me to go ahead and gather as many oranges as I'd like when the time came. 

The time is now. It turns out the oranges are edible—they're an introduced cultivar native to China and Korea, and further south they're considered invasive. They ripen in late October, through November and even into December. They were brought here originally for their rootstock—citrus can be dainty, and Americans were trying to jumpstart an industry. These days they're common in areas like Virginia and Pennsylvania, but this far north, they require a bit of babying. Sharon's trees are tucked into a sunny, protected courtyard, similar to places I've seen figs succeed. She says they're probably fifty-some years old, planted by an artist who owned the house in the 70s and 80s. 

What to do with them, however, was not initially clear. They're full of seeds and mind-bogglingly sour, not the kind of orange you want to bite into or juice. I did more googling. Finally, I connected with Micah LeMon, the bar manager at The Alley Light in Charlottesville, Virginia and the author of The Imbible. He makes them into a bitter hardy orange marmalade, and he then makes this marmalade into cocktails. Huzzah! 

Based on Micah's recipe, I made a batch. The flavor of the marmalade is otherworldly—a stark floral bitterness softened with pure sugar. I made one version with just oranges, and a second with oranges and cranberries. I tried and failed to pick a winner. This week on the Local Food Report, I interviewed Micah through our laptops at his empty bar. He "made me" a Hardy Handshake, the cocktail he makes with his bitter hardy orange marmalade that's a riff on the classic Pegu Club, featuring Tangueray with rangpur limes. The photo he sent looked delicious. And now, I'm off to whip up one of my own. 


6 cups whole hardy oranges
2 or 3 oranges, sliced thinly with seeds removed
6 cups water
6 cups granulated sugar

Rinse and scrub the hardy oranges thoroughly. Slice thinly and remove seeds. Boil both the hardy oranges and the regular oranges in the 6 cups of water for about 10 minutes. Then simmer them for an additional 40 minutes. Add the sugar and cook for an additional 30 minutes, stirring regularly, or until the color starts to darken or caramelize (if you have a thermometer, you're looking for approximately 222 degrees F). If you want to preserve the marmalade, spoon it hot into sterile jars and seal according to manufacturer's instructions. 


My mother uses this as the base for a killer Old Fashioned. Just sub it in place of orange marmalade, or muddled orange and sugar, in your favorite version. 

bitter hardy oranges to yield 1 cup, sliced (a pound or so)
1/2 regular orange
1.5 cups water
2.5 cups sugar
2 cups cranberries

Wash the bitter hardy oranges and the regular oranges and slice very thinly. Remove all seeds. Place the orange slices (both types) in a large non-reactive pot. Add the water and bring to a boil, cook for ten minutes, then turn the heat down to low and simmer for 40 minutes. Add the sugar and the cranberries and cook, stirring often, for another 30-60 minutes, or until the texture thickens. As with all jams, how long this takes will depend on the pectin level of your fruit. Cranberries and oranges are both high in pectin, so be careful—the texture of the mixture hot will always be thinner than when it cools. If you're new to jam/marmalade making, turn the heat off when you think you're not there but the mixture is thickening somewhat and let it cool. Then check the texture and decide if you need to keep cooking. Better to need to cook a little longer than to have turned your fruit and sugar into a rock-hard candy! 

When the texture is right, spoon the hot marmalade into sterile jars according to manufacturer's instructions. It will keep for far longer (years!) than it will take you to eat it. 


If you can't find bitter hardy oranges and you're feeling impatient, go ahead and sub regular old orange marmalade here. Taste before you add the sugar, though—you may find you don't need it. 

1 and 3/4 ounce Tanqueray Rangpur Distilled Gin
1 tablespoon hardy orange marmalade
a touch more sugar
1/4 ounce fresh lime juice
1/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/4 ounce passionfruit juice
a dash of Angostura cocktail bitters
2 dashes Angostura orange cocktail bitters
a wedge of citrus, to garnish

Pour the gin into a cocktail shaker. Spoon in the marmalade and add the lime juice, lemon juice, passionfruit juice, and bitters. Scoop in a good amount of ice. Shake well. Strain once, then strain again, to be sure you get the marmalade flavor without the marmalade texture. Serve straight up with a wedge of citrus. 


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All text, photographs, and other original material copyright 2008-2010 by Elspeth Hay unless otherwise noted.