Read an excerpt from Rosanna Ley’s new book, The Orange Grove
West Dorset, February 2018
Holly flipped through the crumpled and stained pages of her mother’s old cookbook and there it was, peering inside a yellowing envelope. As if someone (her mother?) Had half wanted the recipe to be secret, half wanted it to be seen.
Carefully, she pulled the fragile sheet of paper out of the envelope and smoothed out the creases with her fingertips. The original recipe was written in Spanish; she recognized a few words. By virtue of this, the ingredients and instructions had been written much more clearly and in English, all handwritten which she did not recognize.
Seville orange and almond cake, she read.
For an occasion.
Well, she thought, if that wasn’t an occasion – the day she made her big announcement, the day she told her parents what she had planned, what she had been working on. the last eighteen months without their having a clue what was going on – so she didn’t know what was going on.
Holly looked at the English version of the recipe. First, rub and roughly chop the Seville oranges. She glanced at them. They were sitting in a bowl on the kitchen counter, shining like orange lanterns in the dim February afternoon light. The oranges weren’t the prettiest; they were misshapen, rough and gnarled. But the color. . . It was so vibrant, so bright. The first time she had seen a box of bitter Seville oranges in the farm shop just outside Bridport, she had fallen in love.
Holly chose one now and sniffed the thick skin. Ah. Seville orange was too bitter to eat fresh – it was as tangy and sour as a lemon. But the scent of this orange. . . This transported her to the possibility of an intoxicating summer. Here’s hoping. . . Holly started to rub.
She had discovered her mother’s old Spanish recipe as a teenager. Other girls spent Saturday afternoons in town having coffee with their friends, shopping for makeup, chatting about the boy they liked or the movie showing at the local cinema. . . Holly Baked – fruit cakes, crumbles, brownie packs. There was nothing more satisfying, she had always thought, than a platter of freshly baked pastries.
OK, so she had been an unusual teenager. She smiles to herself. Sifting through her mother’s cookbooks had been her idea from a crazy time.
Almost reluctantly, Holly put the rubbed oranges down on the cutting board. She sliced firmly in the first. The bitter juice gushes out, releasing more of its fresh citrus scent.
Holly had found the recipe, studied it, was fascinated by it, but she had never baked the cake – never dared, after the way her mother had reacted to the suggestion.
She gathered the aromatic, thick-skinned orange pieces and pushed them to one side of the board with the back of her hand. The juice was like an astringent on her skin. She could understand why Seville oranges had so many uses, many of which were medicinal – their aroma, their cooking flavor was both complex and intense.
And then there was the marmalade. Holly had used them to make marmalade for years. Seville oranges were considered the best in the world for this, as the high content of natural pectin helped the marmalade set properly. And Holly had certainly never had any complaints. Baking and baking were activities she turned to when she was tired or anxious. Far from draining her energy even more, making marmalade invigorated her, she always had.
She remembered herself vividly at fourteen, holding up the recipe for Seville Orange Almond Cake in front of her mother, already excited by the prospect. “Can I do this, mom?” She begged.
‘What?’ Her mother stared at the piece of paper, almost snatching it from Holly’s hands.
– No, she said. She had never said “no” to a cake before. Holly frowned.
‘Why not?’ Her mother hesitated.
– Your father doesn’t like it. This is not a good recipe.
– And we don’t have Seville oranges.
Even at fourteen, Holly knew her mother protested too much. What about this old recipe then? What was the big deal? Her mother’s refusal only increased her appeal. Where exactly did he come from? Why had her mother kept her? And why was it off limits? As far as she knew, her mother had no Spanish friends. So who had written it for her, first in Spanish and then in English? Holly was determined to find out more.
She wasn’t stupid though – she waited a few days before asking her mother about Spain.
“Of course I went to Spain,” his mother said casually. Too casual? Holly wondered. “I went with your father.
Was it when someone gave him the recipe for Spanish Orange Almond Cake? Holly decided it was wiser not to ask.
‘When did you go?’ she asked her mother instead. His mother’s expression changed.
“Oh, I don’t know exactly, Holly. Does it matter? In the 1980s, I can’t remember the exact year.
Was it suspicious? Holly guessed not. No one has ever remembered the exact year they left.
“Where did you go in Spain? There was a pause. “Seville. “
Was it Holly’s imagination, or did her mother glance over to the kitchen shelf where her old cookbook sat in the corner?
‘Therefore . . . ? ‘ But his mother didn’t give him time to ask for more.
“Come on, Holly,” she said. ‘Sufficient. Dinner’s almost ready and the table won’t set itself, you know.
She had gone into chivalrous mode. Not only did she frown, but Holly thought she could detect a tear in her mother’s eye. That was it then. Her mother had never been exactly a strict mother, but she was a teacher and she had always kept limits. Enough said. The subject was definitely closed.
It was fifteen years ago. At the moment Holly was living in Brighton, but she was back here in Dorset on one of her regular weekend visits, as besides wanting to see her family, she also missed the scenery of her childhood. Fortunately, she still had the pastry rights in this kitchen.
Holly put the pieces of bright orange in a small saucepan, removing the seeds with a wooden spoon. She added water, covered the pot and turned on the gas. The recipe promised that after thirty minutes the oranges would be soft and the liquid would have evaporated. Holly felt the little buzz of excitement she always felt when she was cooking. It was the process of creation, she supposed. Alchemy. It was something she had never felt in the Brighton office.
She glanced at the recipe. Maybe that old crumpled piece of paper had been the start of his dream all those years ago. So she had decided to bake Seville Orange Almond Cake this afternoon while her parents were out. It seemed appropriate in a way.
She still felt bad that she hadn’t told them what she had planned, what she had done. But her grandmother had advised against it, and with her parents living here where Holly had grown up, and Holly in Brighton, it hadn’t been too difficult to keep things quiet. But now everything was about to change.
Holly broke the eggs, carefully separating them into white and yolk. She put the whites in a bowl and beat them to stiff peaks. Gradually, she added the powdered sugar, beat the remaining sugar with the egg yolks until the mixture thickened, then added her flavored mixture of chopped orange and ground almonds. Already, it smelled of paradise.
She folded the egg whites into the mixture, carefully transferred it to the greased, lined pan, and sprinkled the top with flaked almonds. She looked at her watch. He would be ready when his parents returned with his grandmother for tea. And instead of tea. . . Holly took the bottle of champagne she had brought from Brighton out of her tote bag and put it in the fridge. She was sure her grandmother would approve.
Seville orange and almond cake – for an occasion. She imagined that she could already smell the toasted almonds, already smell the sugar combining with the oranges to make the cake perfectly bittersweet.
And when did they come back? When they returned, she would try to explain to them why she was changing her life so drastically. She would tell them – well – what had happened to her in Brighton and what she had decided to do.
RELATED: Why I Traveled The Riviera With Only A Notebook And Pen By Rosanna Ley
In my notebook, I describe the view from ‘Alonzo’s house’. He can see the broad silky ribbon of the water, the earth-toned palaces of ocher, rust and green on the riverbank and the small church in the distance. I might need that detail later – maybe he’ll walk over to the window and look out? I won’t be able to bring up the view from my study in Dorset – so I have to put it into words here and now ….