Adventures in Picking Forbidden Fruit on the Streets of Tel Aviv

Few people are familiar with the taste of bitter orange and the diverse uses of its juice, peel and flesh. This might be why pickers of the fruit arouse fury in Tel Aviv.

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Hushash, or bitter orange, growing in Tel Aviv.
Hushash, or bitter orange, growing in Tel Aviv.Credit: Dan Peretz
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

At 9 A.M. the pickers begin to gather at the bar in the Dok restaurant on Tel Aviv’s Ibn Gvirol Street. They drink a short espresso and exchange greetings with Yotam and Asaf Doktor, the owners of the Dok and Ha’achim restaurants. The night before, Yotam, the elder brother, became the father of a third daughter, and still he reported early in the morning to the restaurant, which is still closed to the public.

Today they are going out to pick urban hushhash (bitter oranges) in the city streets, and you don’t mess with tradition, even if it’s a new tradition that started only a year ago. The pickers – on ordinary days they include cooks, barmen, hostesses and waiters in the two eateries owned by the brothers – bring ladders and stylish-looking fabric bags (like the old-fashioned fruit pickers’ bags, only smaller and less convenient), and march together, a distance of less than a minute, to the Laskov Grove – nearby Laskov Street, where hushhash trees are planted along most of its length.

They lean ladders against the trees – the tops are laden with ripe golden balls – and begin to pick. Passersby on the Tel Aviv street do not remain indifferent to the almost-surrealistic sight in the heart of the city. Tel Aviv-Jaffa may have a glorious tradition related to citrus, but the sight of pickers in the heart of the city – or even the sight of orange groves adjacent to it – has almost been forgotten, like the taste and fragrance of hushhash oranges.

Picking hushash, or bitter orange, in Tel Aviv.
Picking hushash, or bitter orange, in Tel Aviv.Credit: Dan Peretz

“You know it’s hushhash,” says a pleasant, avuncular neighbor who stops next to the pickers. “You can’t eat it.” The neighbor is not alone. Not a moment passes when someone doesn’t stop next to the pickers and ask in amazement why they are picking hushhash. In the Israeli mindset, the tree is considered stock on which other citrus fruits are grafted, a thorny hedge designed to deter invaders from groves and orchards or simply a decorative tree lacking any practical use.

The young pickers reply patiently to all those who ask (“You don’t eat them fresh, but we prepare preserves, sugared peels and syrup from them”). They themselves are not familiar with the taste of hushhash. “What does it actually taste like?” asks a young hostess. “Is it sour? Bitter? Can I peel one and taste it?”

When she peels and tastes it her face lights up despite the sourness of the flesh of the bitter orange. “It’s actually tasty,” she says in surprise the moment the taboo is removed. An elderly passerby, a North African Jew and one of the few who is not surprised to see pickers climbing on the hushhash trees, nods in agreement and regales us with memories of sweet preserves and bitter salads of turnips and hushhash. That is the moment when Dok arrives with a large pitcher of chilled sangria – white wine, fresh orange sections, lavender flowers, herbs and lots of ice – and everyone is jubilant. “The conditions of orange pickers have improved remarkably since my childhood,” mutters a relatively elderly picker who originally lived in an agricultural community.

A bitter-orange picker on a Tel Aviv street.
A bitter-orange picker on a Tel Aviv street.Credit: Dan Peretz

Not all the neighbors are curious or amused to see this urban agricultural activity. One of them, who lives on Laskov Street, stands on the other side of the road and firmly demands that the young pickers stop looting property that doesn’t belong to them. To whom exactly do the oranges belong – to the residents of the street, to all the residents of the city, or to anyone who strolls around in the public space? Nobody knows.

“But lady,” one of the pickers tries to get a word in edgewise amid the shouts and curses, “if we don’t pick it, it will rot and fall off the tree. It will dirty the sidewalks and the roofs of the cars.” “I prefer that it rot on the tree rather than that you pick it,” says the woman angrily, threatening to invite the media. The outraged woman is not alone. Another neighbor is angry at the urban harvest, and after a profound discussion with Dok (Asaf Doktor’s nickname) declares that he has invited the police to deal with the nuisance.

Preparing ‘anti-Cola’

Meanwhile the pickers have reached their target (about 200 kilograms of hushhash oranges, a considerable amount, but negligible relative to the quantities of fruit still on the trees) and are making their way back to Dok, the restaurant that champions the use of local ingredients only. The real work is only beginning, and now they are divided into three groups. The juice squeezers bend over a large table placed in front of the restaurant that holds three manually operated juicers; those who peel the zest for sugared orange peels are at the bar; and behind it are the most unfortunate ones of all – those who pit and cut the flesh of the fruit for jam (hushhash, like other species that didn’t find their place in modern industrial agriculture, has a horrendously large number of seeds). The cloud of fragrance spreading above the restaurant – the peel of the sour-bitter oranges is far more aromatic than that of sweet oranges – is heady, and attracts more and more people, questions and amused reactions.

A bitter orange being peeled.
A bitter orange being peeled. Credit: Dan Peretz

A police van, the one that was summoned due to the neighbors’ complaints, stops in front of the restaurant. “Sir, you’re breaking the law,” says the policeman in all seriousness to Dok. “Which law am I breaking?” asks Dok with frank curiosity. Silence. The policeman looks like someone who is trying frantically to search his memory for the right line in the law book, and fails to find it. His face falls. Lack of knowledge of the appropriate law immediately strips him of the halo of authority, and he tries desperately to retrieve it.

“Hmm” he mutters, clearing his throat, and then he relents. “Look, you seem like a nice guy, and I personally think that there’s no problem if you pick oranges in the street. But if it makes so many people angry I’m asking you to check the wording of the law.”

Bitter and sweet

The various types of sour oranges, of which hushhash is one, have a long, fruitful and edible history in our region. Scholars are divided on the question of when citrus fruits arrived in the Middle East, but almost all of them agree that sweet oranges arrived in our region only in the 15th-16th centuries. Until then various types of sour-bitter oranges were common here, and the local residents would prepare different types of pickled fruits, sauces and preserves with them. In English the hushhash is called bitter orange, and another even more charming name is Seville orange. Seville oranges are used to this day to make the famous English orange marmalades.

Juicing the bitter orange.
Juicing the bitter orange. Credit: Dan Peretz

The Dok people squeeze juice from the urban hushhash and use it as a wonderfully tasty sauce for cooked vegetables, fish and meat. The same juice –concentrated and cooked with sugar syrup and herbs – is also used as a basis for various drinks and cocktails. (“I call it anti-Cola. It’s well known that the secret formula for Coca-Cola contains hushhash, and anti-Cola, when it’s carbonated, is reminiscent of the flavor of the industrial drink, but it’s far better.”) In addition to these products, there are very tasty sugared hushhash peels, and the delectable marmalade.

“I know there are people who will think it’s strange that we’re a restaurant that takes pride in a social agenda, and still charges for the product of fruits that belong to the public,” says Dok. “But it’s important to us to exploit the raw ingredients surrounding us, keeping in mind environmental preservation and the use of local ingredients. The neighborhood in which we live is also important to us, and I had no intention of hurting anyone or disturbing the peace.”

There are still not many dishes in Israeli cuisine based on oranges; the fruit is mainly eaten fresh, as everyone knows. But maybe the day will come when fish tartare with hushhash juice, scalded green beans with caramelized hushhash and a platter of local cheeses with hushhash preserves will be more common.