There comes a day in every girl’s life where she’s just got to toughen up, stand tall, hold her head up high and take an undetermined amount of oranges in the face. For me, that day came last Sunday.
Last weekend I spent the Sunday in Ivrea, where I attended the Battaglia delle Arance – or Orange Battle, the traditional carnival celebration of the city. The Battaglia delle Arance is exactly what the name suggests: it’s a battle fought exclusively with oranges. How does a girl prepare for the most violently orange battle of her life? Things were surely going to get messy, so I had to be careful what I put on. I don’t own anything orange, so the usual black army boots, blacks tights with skirt, and a big black cotton jacket seemed the best choice. However, it was also carnival, so I felt something cheerful was in order. I contemplated my red bandana that I sometimes wear in my hair, but then decided against it: it was only going to get dirty or lost. All black it was, then. Remember this fact.
So what’s the deal with this orange throwing? The origins of the festival are not entirely clear to me – 4 different people have come up with the same number of ‘historically accurate’ explanations – but the way the battle works is that the city is divided up into teams: each rione, or (historical) neighbourhood, has its own team, each with its own name, colours, symbol et cetera. A (small) part of the team gets up on a big horse-drawn cart, whilst the rest remains on the ground. The ones up on the cart are driven around the town, whilst those who remain on the ground always stay in their own territory – the many squares of the city are used as battlegrounds, and each square is home to usually two or three teams. Whenever a cart arrives in a square, the hurling of oranges begins – all those on the ground try to hit the other teams on the carts, whilst those up on the carts throw their oranges down onto their opponents. The strange part here is that those on the carts wear protection whilst those on the ground go bare-headed – the latter already have gravity working against them, so you’d expect them to need it more. The carts make several rounds around the town, stopping at each of the five squares more than once.
As we arrived at the completely crowded station of Ivrea after an hour-long train journey on a jam-packed train, I noticed a lot of people in red hats. In fact, I noticed almost every single person there was wearing red headgear. Red hats, everywhere, and if it wasn’t a red hat, it was a red ribbon, or a red scarf, or something similar. I asked my friend what this was all about. “Well”, he said, “historically, all the squads have their own colour, but so do the spectators. They wear something red to set them apart from the combatants. You wear something red to show that you’re not part of the battle, and you don’t want to get hit.”
Right. Should have gone for that bandana, then.
When we arrived in the town, it turned out to be OK – to protect the buildings, all these nets had been put up around the squares to keep the oranges away, and we could hide behind those. The whole orange hurling looked like so much fun though, that after a while I couldn’t help myself – I desperately wanted to join in. I looked around me to see what the other spectators were doing – all of the orange throwers I had seen so far were wearing official team colours, and I wasn’t sure if randomers like me could join in. I chucked the odd sneaky orange here and there, but didn’t dare go full warfare. I ended up asking some youngsters, who told me that officially, you’re meant to leave the battling to the professionals. They pay good money to join one of the teams and join in with the battle, so if the participants catch you throwing oranges without wearing official team colours, they will rain their orange wrath down upon you with a rage they don’t even show their most hated opponents. However, if you happen to find some oranges on the street that still look throwable, you can definitely get away with a little bit of illicit orange-throwing. I ended up hurling a grand total of 13, and receiving 2 full ones, plus the juicy debris of a whole lot more. Never been so happy in my life.
A colleague of mine who went last year prepared me for the smell: “It’s an interesting combination of horse shit and orange that you’ll never smell anywhere else, and that you’ll remember for the rest of your life”. It’s true. The carts with the orange warriors are horse-drawn, but they aren’t even the only horses in town – there’s lots of other little parades of princes and princesses and carnivalesque royalties on horses, so there’s horse shit galore, and you wouldn’t even believe the amount of oranges that cover the streets and squares after just a few minutes of throwing, never mind after 3 hours. However, in the beginning I mostly smelled oranges. The moment the battle begins, you start smelling this orangey scent that keeps getting stronger and more citrusy, up to the point where it mixes with dust, dirt and horse dung. In those first few minutes it’s a really delicious smell.
In fact, it made me sort of hungry for oranges, and as I stood there gazing at oranges flying to and fro, I started fantasising about what to make with oranges. The smell somehow took my thoughts to citrusy panna cotta with orange syrup. I had a shot at it the next day, and it turned out as delicious as expected.
For the panna cotta, about half a litre of it, you will need:
- 400 ml fresh cream
- 100 gr icing sugar
- 5 gr (or 2.5 sheets) of gelatine
- 2 sizeable strips of orange peel
- 2 sizeable strips of lemon peel
- some rum (but only, like, a shot glass full)
For the orange syrup, you will need:
- 3 tbsp of sugar
- 1 tbsp water
- the juice of 1 to 1.5 orange
- some more rum (optional!)
Panna cotta is easy to make and the preparation doesn’t take very long, but the waiting time is (at least) 5 hours, so remember that you have to make them in advance!
First of all, put your gelatine in a bowl of cold water and soak the sheets for 10 minutes. In the meantime, wash your orange and lemon, really give them a good rub to take the wax off, then slice off your sizeable strips of citrus peel. Put all your cream in a saucepan, add the citrus, heat up (but never boil!). Add the sugar, make sure it all dissolves. When your gelatine is soaked, squeeze it out, then add it to the warm/hot cream, make sure it dissolves completely, stir well, then take it off the fire.
Choose your moulds: you can make small, single-person portions, or make one larger one that you cut like a cake. Your choice. Either way, use a little bit of rum to lube up your moulds (in my case a rather colourful collection of silicone muffin cups, plus one glass bowl because I still had a lot of cream left), that way the panna cotta should be easier to remove when they’re all done.
Now, using a small sieve, carefully pour the still liquid cream into your muffin cups or whatever, then put these in the fridge for at least 5 hours. Whilst you wait, make the syrup!
For the syrup: Put three tablespoons of sugar and one tablespoon of water in a small saucepan. Heat up until the sugar is completely liquid. Then add the juice of your orange(s). The sugar will probably crystallise a bit again, so be prepared to stir like a nutter. At first, the syrup will be quite liquid, but as it cools, it’ll go a lot more syruppy. If it’s already quite syruppy to begin with, you might want to add a bit more juice. (My juice turned out super red because almost all oranges in this country are blood oranges – they’re delicious, so it’s not a problem, but if you have normal orange oranges, your sauce will look different. That’s OK!)
To remove your panna cotta from its mould, briefly dip the bottom in hot water. They should come out fairly easily after that. Top them with your orange syrup.