NEROLI (Citrus aurantium bigaradia – Rutaceae)

Neroli is an essential oil extracted from the fragrant flowers of the bitter, sour or Seville orange tree, also known as Citrus aurantium bigaradia or bigarade orange. In their favoured Mediterranean or sub-tropical climate, bitter oranges can grow to a height of 9 m (30 ft). (See also Bergamot, Orange and Petitgrain.)

Although oranges had been known since the first century, it wasn’t until the late seventeenth century that neroli oil was discovered; it is thought to have been named after Anna Maria de la Tremoille, Princess of Neroli (near Rome). The oil and the therapeutic properties of the flowers were particularly valued at this time by the people of Venice, who used it against the plague and other fevers, drank it as a tisane, and rubbed a distilled water into their bodies twice a day. At one time, neroli was used as a perfume by prostitutes in Madrid (customers could recognize them by the smell), but now orange perfumes have undergone a sea change, signifying purity, and blossoms are worn in bridal headdresses.

The principal commercial producers of the trees and oil are Italy, France, Tunisia, Egypt and Sicily. The best neroli oils come from Tunisia, Sicily and France, but the volume from the latter has decreased in the past few years. Worldwide the annual production does not exceed 2 tonnes; 1 tonne of flowers is needed to produce 1 kg (2 lb) of oil ¬thus neroli is highly expensive.


Description: This is obtained by the steam distillation of the flowers of the Seville or bigarade orange. The fresh essence is yellowish but turns reddish-brown if exposed to light and air making it unsuitable for use in therapy. The smell is wonderful, very sweet and orangey, with a bitter undertone.

A by-product of distillation is orange-flower or orange-blossom water – a solution of neroli in water – which is used in pharmaceutical preparations and in cookery.
The principal constituents: Acetic esters, dipentene, terpineol, farnesol, geraniol, indol, jasmone, I-camphene, (X- and B-pinene, nerol, and nerolidol, plus traces of benzoic acid and a few hydrocarbons.

Dangers: Because of its very high price, petit grain is often added to neroli, which of course decreases the therapeutic value of neroli.


In illness
The properties of neroli are sedative, antispasmodic, tranquillizing, anti¬toxic, and slightly hypnotic. It has always been one of my favourite essential oils, because of its wonderful perfume, and its therapeutic properties, particularly those which treat the nervous system. Anxiety and nervous depression can be banished virtually instantaneously by the use of a little neroli – just 3 drops mixed into 10 ml (2 tsp) soya or almond oil. Rub this clockwise on to the solar plexus, nape of the neck and temples, breathe deeply and relax for 10 minutes. There is a great feeling of peace, and the nervous tension disappears. This calming and relaxing effect can be particularly valuable in pregnancy: a bowl of warm water with a few drops of neroli in it can be placed beside the bed during labour too. And a new baby could safely be bathed in water containing Y4 drop of the oil: mix 1 drop of oil in a capful of baby shampoo, then add just a quarter of this to the bathwater.

For insomniacs, the slightly hypnotic effect of neroli oil can induce sleep, acting as a natural tranquillizer; put a few drops of the oil into a warm bath taken just before going to bed. Or make a tisane from the dried orange blossom – known as bigaradier – and drink before sleep (this is digestive as well). Or simply have an orange tree in a pot nearby (see Petitgrain).

Neroli is also good for bad circulation, when the oil, as above, is massaged in every day. The blossoms, taken as a tisane, are a good natural blood cleanser. And baths containing a few drops of the oil are also effective for the symptoms of PMT.
(See also backache, fatigue, oedema, palpitations and stress.)

In beauty
Orange flowers were a constituent of Hungary Water, and, together with bergamot oil, neroli oil was used in the first eau de cologne in the early eighteenth century.

Neroli can be useful in acne conditions: mix equal quantities of neroli and another oil juniper, lavender or clove), and add 3 drops of this to a kettleful of hand-hot water in a bowl. Cover the head with a towel and lean over the bowl so that the aromatic vapours can reach the skin.

Orange-flower water is a good toner. Marie Antoinette is said to have used it to improve her rather sallow skin.

In cookery
Bitter oranges are the ones that should be used in cookery, despite the fact that the sour flesh is virtually inedible. Sevilles are the oranges for marmalade making, and their juice and peel is that used in Sauce Bigarade, a classic French haute cuisine accompaniment to duck. Because the peel of bitter oranges is particularly aromatic, it is candied, used in syrups and dried; the latter is included in bouquet garnis in France for beef and veal stews, and some fish dishes. (It is always best to use the peel of bitter oranges; that of sweet oranges is often dyed and sprayed for marketing purposes.) Peel and oil from bitter oranges are used in the making of orange liqueurs such as Curacao, Grand Marnier and Cointreau.

Neroli orange-flower water can sometimes be obtained from Greek or Greek-Cypriot shops; other orange-flower waters can be found in chemists (check they are suitable for use in cooking). Orange-blossom water is used in many North African and Middle Eastern recipes (as is rose water), and blossom jams are also known. Use the water ¬or make your own decoction from the flowers – to perfume cakes, creams, custards and pancake batter. It will also make them more digestible.

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