The traditional recipe features the tart juice of the sour orange, sweetened condensed milk, egg yolks, and a simple graham cracker crust. So, what exactly is sour orange?
The hardy citrus fruit, better known as the Seville orange, has an acidic, tangy, and somewhat bitter taste that makes it too sour to consume on its own. As a result, it became a staple ingredient in various dishes – sour orange pie being the best of them.
Origin and Distribution of the Sour Orange
Sour orange is a feral fruit, first introduced to St. Augustine’s farmlands by sixteenth-century Spanish settlers, where it was also traded with Native Americans. However, the bitter orange is native to Southeast Asia and has been growing wild since ancient times in the South Sea Islands of Fiji, Samoa, and Guam.
From Southeast Asia, the Arabs carried it to Arabia in the early years of the 9th Century. It was reported to be growing in Sicily as early as the 11th Century but wasn’t cultivated widely until it reached Seville, Spain, at the end of the 12th Century.
For over 500 years, the Seville was the only orange in Europe. It was finally introduced in the Americas during the Age of Exploration as explorers and colonists set out to discover the wonders of the New World. First, it was naturalized in Mexico in 1568 and then in Brazil by 1587. It didn't take long for the fruit tree to take over the Caribbean islands of Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Barbados before reaching the Cape Verde Islands by the end of the Century.
Still, nowhere did this wild fruit tree thrive quite like it did in the temperate lands of Florida. Soon after introduction, sour oranges were being exported from St. Augustine to the British Isles. To this day, the bitter orange is prized for making British marmalade – a preserve made from the orange’s peel and juice. The earliest recipe for “marmelat of oranges” dates all the way back to 1677. Once a year, in winter, sour oranges would be shipped from Seville to Britain to be used in marmalade. The influx of Sevilles from Florida ensured that this breakfast spread was available all year round.
While Seville oranges are farmed, you can find wild trees growing near small streams in the Everglades, Georgia, and even the Bahamas.
Authentic Floridian Sour Orange Pie
A lot of modern sour orange pie recipes tend to substitute Seville oranges for the combination of lemons and sweet oranges. Nonetheless, there is no imitation that can match the flavor of Seville oranges – called calamondins in Florida. Sour orange pie offers a brighter, cleaner flavor than key lime pie. The sour orange's powerfully bitter flavor helps it stand up better to cooking and baking than the sweet oranges. For this reason, it makes a marvelous dessert with a truly unique essence.
The story of how key lime pie stole the limelight is one of clever lore marketing and one fruit’s inability to shake its bitter reputation. Legend has it that key lime pie was invented when local sea-sponge harvesters drizzled some key lime juice on bread and left it to bake in the sun. It’s not surprising that this recipe has evolved quite a bit since then. And that’s the story that catapulted key lime pie to fame and made sour orange pie fade into obscurity.
Today, the forgotten southern dessert is undergoing a revival. Calamondins are featuring in more recipes other than those for marmalade. So, have you tried sour orange pie? You can make sour orange pie by substituting the zest in your favorite key lime pie recipe.
But, where do you find sour oranges? They're quite bountiful throughout Florida, even though they're mainly for export. Still, you can find sour oranges in specialty grocery stores or your neighborhood. A lot of people tend to grow the fruit tree as a decorative tree in their backyards, unaware that they can use it in dessert recipes.
If you don't have access to sour oranges, you can always approximate the flavor by mixing lemon juice with orange juice.