A Sensory Adventure from the Woods of Wellfleet to a Bar in Charlottesville, Virginia | CAI

A Sensory Adventure from the Woods of Wellfleet to a Bar in Charlottesville, Virginia

Oct 29, 2020

Last fall I noticed an unusual fruit tree. It was growing in Wellfleet in a protected courtyard, and there were bright orange fruits the size of golf balls hanging in the branches. 

I reached out to the homeowners and they told me that these oranges were planted by an artist decades ago. It turns out they’re called Flying Dragons, or bitter hardy oranges, and they’re one of several introduced citrus cultivars native to northern China and Korea. And although they’ve naturalized further south in areas like Virginia and Pennsylvania, this far north, they’re unusual.

The fruit tree in Wellfleet.
Credit Elspeth Hay

I wanted to know could you eat them? The owners of the tree in Wellfleet weren’t sure, so I started asking around. I ended up connecting with Micah LeMon, a bar manager at The Alley Light in Charlottesville, Virginia and author of The Imbible. He says the bitter hardy orange is edible, but he prefers to drink it. 

“They’re chock full of seeds.  And they have this very, very fragrant outer kind of oil in the peel and it’s really an interesting flavor it’s almost kind of like lavender and mothballs with citrus. But in kind of a pleasant way.”

Micah says when a friend first brought bitter hardy oranges to his bar kitchen, he knew the fruits were too sour and too seedy to use for juice. But he started wondering—what about a cocktail marmalade?

“I really didn’t have super high hopes when I made hardy orange marmalade for the first time. But I made it, it was pretty yummy. And I plugged it into this classic cocktail called a Pegu Club. And the broad strokes of that are just kind of like gin, orange, and cocktail bitters.”

The results surprised Micah. The contrast between the bitterness from the oranges and the sweetness of the sugar balanced perfectly in his riff on this old gin classic. He called it the Hardy Handshake, and these days it’s a staple on his fall bar menu.

The bitter hardy orange.
Credit Elspeth Hay

“For this cocktail I wanted kind of a more citrusy profile gin instead of one that was like super junipery. So I love Tangueray and Tangueray makes this iteration of gin with rancor limes. That’s going to be our spirit base, we’ll do a short 2 ounces of that, about 1 and 3/4 of an ounce.”

Micah’s set up with his laptop alone in the empty Alley Light bar. Next he adds the bitter hardy orange marmalade.

He adds about a tablespoon of the marmalade as a sweet component. And then a quarter ounce of passion fruit.

A dash of Angostura bitters and Angostura orange for complexity, a touch of sugar, and a few squeezes of fresh lemon and lime. Then it gets a good shake.  

I realize as he works that this conversation is the closest I’ve gotten to actually being in a bar in more than seven months. I’m savoring it, even if it’s virtual.

“And then you need to double strain this, to get all your marmalade flavor without getting all your marmalade pulp in there.”

Micah pours the finished Hardy Handshake cocktail with bitter orange marmalade into a glass and sends me a picture. Since we talked, I’ve made a batch of bitter hardy orange marmalade from the tree I found growing in Wellfleet, and a few Hardy Handshakes of my own. The flavor transports me—to woods further south and across oceans and finally back home.

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Find the recipe and more on Elspeth's blog, Diary of a Locavore. Here's a link to a Massachusetts nursery that cultivates bitter hardy orange plants.