with recipe for two versions of grapefruit brûlée
Keep laughing a week.
(event score from “Grapefruit” by Yoko Ono)
A GRAPEFRUIT’S two halves are meant to be shared with your beloved(s). They are like Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit dream, which becomes reality once two dream together. On a more practical note, each grapefruit half contains all the vitamin C one needs to make it through a winter day. And that’s exactly when citrus fruits are in season.
With all those rich winter stews, fatty cheese fondues and other greasy carbohydrate- and cholesterol-laden holiday excesses, some light and refreshing well-chilled Ruby Red grapefruit is a welcome relief. Today’s grapefruits are so sweet, you might not even need to add sugar.
Grapefruits are perfect for sharing for a fruity breakfast, as a light starter, a digestion-stimulating dessert, or a middle course in a larger meal to restore appetite. And it’s quick and easy to prepare too. To brûlée – or, in a pinch, to broil – is just one little extra step that is well worth it.
In the 1930s, grapefruit was served on ice in stylish, very long-stemmed champagne coupes, as can be seen in the banquet scene of Frank Capra’s Rain Or Shine, a wonderful film from pre-code Hollywood.
But you probably know grapefruit as the classic diet breakfast for those trying to lose weight. In Public Enemy, another pre-code movie, a young, uneducated macho played by James Cagney can’t stand the grapefruit and everything it symbolizes any longer, and he just has to punch that grapefruit into his girlfriend’s face.
Well, grapefruit isn’t always healthy after all. It can have dangerous interactions with some medication. One study even suggested a link between grapefruit and breast cancer, but the data is inconclusive. This one fruit spans themes of life and death, sexuality and big money.
The grapefruit industry was gaining momentum in the early decades of the 20th century. Just two years prior to the grapefruit scene from Public Enemy, the Ruby Red grapefruit variety was patented in Texas in 1929. This was one of the earliest patents on a plant. The first pink grapefruit actually came from Florida in 1906. Regular white grapefruit’s history started back in 1750, when this hybrid of a sweet orange and a pomelo was first documented in the Caribbean, on the island of Barbados. It’s only in the beginning 20th century that grapefruit started to mean big business.
A lot of people made their living with the grapefruit. Famous photojournalist Arthur Rothstein documented grapefruit workers, the women and men in packing plants and canning factories in Florida.
There’s much to be said about the grapefruit and its sexual innuendos, from masochistic diets to their resemblance to different parts of the female anatomy, from their pink color to their association with a gemstone and a female name. Marilyn Monroe might as well have sung, “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend and Ruby Red her favorite food.”
I won’t even go into the details of what Cosmopolitan, not surprisingly but shockingly for many, revealed in 2014 as Auntie Angel’s sex tip involving a grapefruit. Or Urban Dictionary’s list of incredible definitions for pamplemousse (the French word for grapefruit).
No, what should be mentioned instead is that the book Grapefruit, Yoko Ono’s approach to conceptual art, her “event scores” from 1964, became acceptable only once male artists like Joseph Kosuth joined in.
All the while, Vienna was still a boring, post-war, gloomy place for spies and old Nazis, tucked away next to the iron curtain. Bruno Kreisky‘s politics did bring about a noticeable rise in standard of living, education, social welfare, women’s rights and equal opportunity in general. Around that time, the superfood grapefruit made its appearance in Viennese supermarkets. That’s when Vienna’s finest singer-songwriter, André Heller, had his heyday too.
In light of the social progress since that period, it strikes me as particularly suitable to serve these bitter-sweet memories in the shape of a burned grapefruit – brûlée in French. What have most grapefruit dreams of health and wealth become but ridiculed and repressed?!1
Back in those 1970s and 80s, winters in Vienna were particularly long and bad. A grapefruit was a piece of bright, fresh sunshine and color rolling into a grey and frozen city. While in the U.S., grapefruit comes from Florida, Texas or California, most Viennese grapefruits are grown anywhere from Cyprus to Turkey to Israel (in what dates back to a symbol of Jewish-Arab cooperation in Mandatory Palestine).
But citrus fruits have been growing right in the middle of the Habsburg’s capital since 1647. Vienna’s Schönbrunn palace orangery has one of the oldest collections of citrus trees in the world, with over 500 plants and 100 varieties, 40 of them historic ones.2 The aristocracy used the orangery as a location for their parties. Nowadays, once a year around May, during the Wiener Zitrustage (The Viennese Citrus Days), a degustation of some of the specimens takes place at the Schönbrunn palace’s orangery.
Not unlike the times of the Medici, when citrus fruits were valuable gifts among statesmen and were honored in portraits like family members, today’s citrus fruits from Schönbrunn’s orangery are rare and not for sale to the public.
The palace’s citrus fruits are served by chefs like Heinz Reitbauer, from one of the world’s finest restaurants, the Steirereck in Vienna’s Stadtpark (actually ranked world’s no. 9 in 2016). But the Steirereck doesn’t serve exclusively to the elite. Even people like us try to save up money too, albeit only occasionally, get a glimpse of this masterful outlook on Austrian food and Viennese cuisine. If one is interested in local food, in its history and its skillful preparation, one is bound to visit such stellar institutions as Vienna’s Steirereck restaurant.
Except for the Schönbrunn palace orangery, grapefruits are obviously not grown locally in Austria, though the orangery shows how that could be done, even on a somewhat larger scale.
Grapefruit is still popular today. Like elsewhere, Vienna’s population doesn’t have to start a revolution to get to Empress Sisi‘s grapefruits from Schönbrunn’s orangery. Imported grapefruits that are almost as good are available all winter long, when the public health is most in need of vitamins.
Caramelizing some sugar on the grapefruit and maybe adding some strong alcohol, like Starka Vodka, although not necessary, gives the fruit a little crunch and a contrasting flavor. The mint on top is not just for decoration purpose, it’s actually really good with grapefruit, either red, pink or white.
Also, be sure to try my 1900s Caribbean-inspired grapefruit combination. (Remember, that’s where the first white grapefruits came from in the 18th century.) I took my inspiration from the painting “Nature morte aux pamplemousses“ by Paul Gauguin.
Take a very well-chilled white grapefruit. Use a bit of salt together with the sugar to caramelize. Drizzle tequila (genuine Senior Curaçao Liqueur or Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge would definitely be appropriate here) and red chili on top. Salt and chili work wonders with grapefruit.3
Here’s how to make caramelized grapefruit brûlée, with or without a blowtorch:
RECIPES: 1980s Grapefruit Brûlée & Paul Gauguin’s Caramelized Pamplemousse
for 1980s Grapefruit Brûlée (serving 2)
1 red or pink grapefruit, well-chilled
1-2 tablespoons coarse sugar
a few drops Starka, Vodka, Champagne or other sparkling white wine (optional)
mint leaf (optional)
for Paul Gauguin’s Caramelized Pamplemousse (serving 2)
1 white grapefruit, well-chilled
1 -2 tablespoons coarse sugar
1/4 teaspoon table salt
few drops Tequila, Curaçao, Triple Sec or Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge (optional)
3 mint leaves en chiffonade (stacked, rolled up and thinly sliced)
chili flakes or fresh chili pepper to taste, very small dice
- Halve each grapefruit. (If you do not serve the grapefruit as recommended in a bowl or glass of some sort or bowl, cut a thin slice off the bottom of each half to stabilize the grapefruit on the plate).
- Remove the seeds from the grapefruit and loosen the segments with a sharp paring knife.
- Make a hole in the middle of the grapefruit halves to pour a bit of the alcohol, if using.
- To caramelize the top, sprinkle each half evenly with the sugar. Use a blowtorch (Map/Pro gas is best) to melt all the sugar until starting to brown slightly. (Alternatively, place onto a cookie sheet and use the broiler to roast the grapefruit halves. The result will not be the same, because the grapefruits will heat up.)
- For Paul Gauguin’s Caramelized Pamplemousse, sprinkle the hot sugar with the salt and the chili.
- Let the top cool down for a couple minutes, to get crispy.
- Serve immediately with the mint on top. Ideally, place the halves on top of some crushed ice in a chilled, long-stemmed dessert or champagne coupe.
Further Reading on Grapefruit:
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- On food as a political issue and how it relates to securing rights and improving the lives of ordinary – that is, non-wealthy – people, Mark Bittman cosigned Food and More: Expanding the Movement for the Trump Era on Civil Eats.
- In Buddhas Hand, Bergamotte und echte Mandarinen. Eine Liebeserklärung in Gelb. Der Kosmos Zitrusfrucht. Barbara Zeithammer (“Buddha’s Hand, Bergamot Orange and Real Mandarins. A Declaration of Love in Yellow. The Citrus Fruit Univers” by Barbara Zeithammer) on Austrian public Radio Oe1 (January 8th 2017, 6h15 pm)
- See Grapefruit And Salt: The Science Behind This Unlikely Power Couple (NPR)