At least once a winter, you owe it to yourself to squeeze some fresh citrus for an exquisite drink that can make you feel instantly grateful to be alive. As January rituals go, this is a joyously straightforward one that requires only a few good fruits and a strong hand or simple juicing device — nothing fancy. It is the ultimate convenience food and natural high, blessed with the virtues of sun and vitamins just when we need them most.
We have drunk fresh orange juice in California, once from fruits straight off the tree, and that is impossible to beat. But we discovered the joys of freshly squeezed grapefruit and blood oranges on our first trip to Italy many years ago, where freshly squeezed juice is not an accessory to an oversized breakfast, but an event in itself, to be respected and savoured solo.
Spremuti are squeezed freshly on request in just about any place where you would find an espresso or aperitif. The choice of drinkable citrus in an Italian winter can make the choice difficult (will it be orange today, or grapefruit, or blood orange?). They are all better than the last, and I have to restrain myself from drinking my way from café to café like a citrus wino. (There was a time in Copenhagen where our hotel foolishly provided a juicer and bowl of oranges for visitors to squeeze for themselves at breakfast, and we shamelessly guzzled any profits they would otherwise have made from our stay.) It is worth knowing that many hotels in Italy will make you a spremuta for breakfast if you ask, sometimes without extra charge; it’s worth checking. We discovered this after drinking disappointing boxed juice for a couple of mornings before observing an Italian guest asking for the good stuff.
I recall my very first sight of a blood orange many more years ago, when I was a student back-packing across Europe. It was being meticulously pared with a rustic knife by an old man in rustic gear on a train barrelling through the snowy alps. He astonished me with the care he took to remove every shred of peel and membrane, taking a good few minutes to strip the fruit to a glistening blood-red ball. Then, when he had at last prepared it to the standards of a Michelin-starred chef, he popped the whole fruit in his mouth in one savage gulp, and down it went in about five seconds. The startling image is with me to this day. My first taste of one, in the next market I came across, was also a surprise: the fruit less sweet than I expected, and somehow gutsier. What’s in a name?
We are fortunate now to be able to get excellent and more exotic citrus when they are at their best — if still not as good as those enjoyed in the countries where they are grown. Last January I made my way to the local market premeditating a citrus orgy at home in lieu of a winter holiday. I bought as much as I could carry in plastic bags so heavy they hurt my fingers and juiced them by hand in turns: oranges first, then blood oranges from Sicily, and finally, the grapefruits, and we tasted them all, using every glass in the house. The grapefruit were sweeter even than the blood oranges. All were heaven.
I did pay for this greed, though, because we couldn’t drink all the juice at once, and it wasn’t quite as magical even an hour after juicing (though it was still very very good). The best results really are gained from squeezing the fruits right when you want to drink, not in advance (and unfortunately, not the night before, a mistake I made when trying to get organised for a group brunch some years ago). So if you do plan this for a special breakfast when you have other things on the go, have someone standing by on juice duty, and give the command at the last moment.
I like all spremuti a little cooler than room temperature — too cold and it blunts the flavour a tad, too warm and it’s not quite as refreshing. But there isn’t much to go wrong at any temperature. If you keep the fruit in a cool place and squeeze to drink almost immediately, you can just about guarantee a celebration.