Colonial Chocolate Spices: Orange Zest
Visitors to Captain Jackson’s Historic Chocolate Shop are often surprised to discover that our colonial drinking chocolate is seasoned with eight different spices. American Heritage Historic Chocolate is flavored with cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg, chili pepper, anise, orange zest, salt, and annatto, as well as a small amount of sugar. We will be taking a closer look at each of these spices to explore their origins and uses in colonial American cooking.
Orange zest sweetens our colonial drinking chocolate and adds a subtle fruity flavor to the bittersweet beverage. Orange zest is the grated outer layer of the skin of the sweet orange, the world’s most popular fruit. Sweet oranges are the fruits of the Citrus Sinensis plant, a relatively small, spiny, evergreen tree. The fruit’s flesh is eaten fresh or squeezed into juice, and the fruit’s skin is dried, candied, or grated to make zest. Fragrant oil is extracted from the fruit’s skin and used for its scent, and it’s this oil that makes orange zest so flavorful.
Oranges originated in Southern China, where they were cultivated for centuries before they were first introduced to Europe. While it is not known exactly when oranges were first brought to Europe, Orange trees were being grown in the Mediterranean region by the early 16th century. As oranges grew in popularity, very wealthy Europeans began to build orangeries, which allowed orange trees to survive the cold winter weather of Northern Europe and be grown throughout the continent. The most well-known of these greenhouses is the orangery at Kensington Palace, which was built by Queen Anne in 1704. Christopher Columbus brought the first orange trees to the Americas to be planted in Haiti during his second voyage, and by the Early 17th century, orange trees were being grown throughout the Caribbean and Central America. Today, they grow worldwide in tropical, subtropical, and some warm temperate regions.
With orange trees being grown in Florida and the Caribbean during the 18th century, American colonists had relatively easy access to shipments of fresh oranges. Orange flesh, juice, and zest are called for in many colonial era recipes. For cooks seeking instruction on how to prepare orange zest at home, one 18th century cookbook offered the following advice: “To zest, (a Term of Art us’d by Confectioners) is to cut the Peel of Oranges, Lemons, or Citrons, from top to bottom, into small Slips or Zests, as thin as it can possibly be done.” As sugar was a very expensive ingredient in colonial America, orange zest was a more affordable option for sweetening foods and beverages. In addition to playing a supporting role in flavoring chocolate and many baked goods, orange was also the main ingredient in a variety of recipes. Dessert recipes that took advantage of the fruit’s natural sweetness included orange tarts, orange pudding, and orange cream. Oranges were also transformed into condiments that could be used to easily sweeten other dishes, such as orange marmalade, orange butter, and orange cranberry relish. A unique recipe for “orange loaves” explained how to use hollowed and candied orange rinds as vessels for small sweet cakes, which sound like they would pair perfectly with a cup of chocolate sweetened with a bit of orange zest.