Orange Disorder – Frank McNally on easy peelers, mob violence, and the birth of serendipity

Oh my darling clementines

In a fancy Dublin food-shop a few years ago, I noticed tangerines (or maybe it was mandarins) on special offer: five for €2, I think. It was the price tag I saw mainly, not the variety.

So I brought a bunch to the counter, where the assistant asked if they were tangerines (or mandarins, or maybe she said satsumas). And whatever word she used, I agreed that was what they were. Until she rang the purchase up and the price came to more than €2.

Then I said: but they’re on special offer. And she said: no, that’s the satsumas (or mandarins, or whichever was the one she hadn’t named before). And I said, well, whatever these are called, they were on special.

At which point she sighed, and – a bit crankily – pointed out that I had already said they were the other ones. So I counter-pointed out that, no, I had merely agreed with her rhetorical question to that effect. I further noted that she was the one who worked in a fancy food store. And if she didn’t know which variety was which, what chance did I have?


After that, with something less than grace, she cancelled the original sale and re-entered the right variety in the till, which automatically applied the discount.

So I got my special offer, but at an emotional cost. I was left in no doubt that I had made her already bad day worse. (Now that I think of it, they were probably clementines).


The small but lingering trauma of this event – years later, I still tense up slightly whenever I see wrong-orange woman on the till – means I should welcome the growing tendency of supermarkets to label all such fruits as “easy-peelers”.

But instead I shared the feeling of the Spectator magazine’s “Mind your Language” columnist when, before Christmas, she lamented this degenerate tendency.

The different varieties all had separate histories and personalities, she wrote. Tangerines dated from 1840s China. Satsumas were from 1880s Japan. The clementine was an accidental 1920s hybrid of tangerine and Seville orange, and so on.

I was also interested to see a follow-up letter in which a self-confessed “citrus nerd”, a trade veteran, explained that the “easy-peeler” cop-out was the result of a recent proliferation of clementine hybrids, bred to mature between January and May, to bridge a traditional gap in supply. The EU had insisted that clementine hybrids could not be called clementines, hence the EP catch-all.

He too regretted the trend. “We choose our apples by variety, and we should do the same with these fruits,” he wrote (bravely comparing apples with oranges).

Then he added an insider’s tip: that as of Christmas, the best variety was yet to come. “I suggest you look out for nadorcotts in the New Year,” he said.

Unknown to me until the Spectator mentioned it, the nadorcott resulted from accidental cross-pollination in 1982 between the Murcott mandarin and a citrus unknown. Its discovery was made by a Mr Nadori, hence the ugly name. Alas, if I had to sell nadorcotts, however good they taste, I too would call them easy-peelers.


An indirect unfortunate side effect of those Italians protests over Ireland’s planned health warnings on wine bottles – calling it an “attack” on the Mediterranean diet – was to remind me of an unfortunate stereotype perpetrated by Mafia movies.

This is the association of food with murder, based on some famous real-life mob hits in restaurants, where victims had dropped their guards.

It features prominently in the Godfather and was also used to great effect in the climax of the Sopranos. The old saying from the pasta sauce ad – “at the table, no-one grows old” – is especially true in the Mafia.

Mind you, as Godfather anoraks will know, the really bad news for mobsters is the appearance on screen of oranges, which have banshee-like powers of foretelling death.

Don Corleone buys some just before he’s shot. A stunt with orange peel later provokes his fatal heart attack. A billboard advertises oranges at Sonny’s causeway rendezvous. Fanucci eats one as his last meal.

But none of those were easy-peelers, of course. In keeping with mob principles, they were the old-fashioned variety you had to cut with a knife.


Among this weekend’s lesser anniversaries is the 267th birthday of the word serendipity. Meaning “an unplanned fortunate discovery”, like the nadorcott, it was first used by Horace Walpole in a letter of January 28th, 1754, mentioning something he had learned about a famous lost painting.

Serendip was an old name for Sri Lanka, and in a fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip, which Walpole had read, the protagonists are always making happy finds by chance. Hence his coinage of the word. Alas this means that, unlike nadorcotts, the discovery of the word serendipity was not in itself serendipitous.