Sixty years ago grapefruit were still rather exotic. They hadn’t been around for all that long, the first canned specimens arriving Britain via Florida in the 1880’s, well in advance of the fresh fruits hitting the shops. Grapefuits are a hybrid fruit derived, either by deliberate grafting or by chance mutation, from the pomelo a.k.a. the shaddock. The eponymous Captain Shaddock is said to have brought the original seeds from Java and sown them at Barbados. A romantic tale; and grapefruit are suitably glowing and glamorous in their native orchards, hanging like great golden suns among the leaves, a fructose solar system in the Garden of the Hesperides. I remember eating them once in Bermuda, sun-kissed and warm, straight from the tree in January. Succulent and sweet, they bore little resemblance to the pithy sour old things we were used to at home.
I could see then why grapefruit have been called one of the Seven Wonders of Barbados. (I have no idea what the other six are, though one of them certainly ought to be the movie star Claudette Colbert. She spent her declining years as queen of the island, telling Vanity Fair magazine that her greatest disappointment would to be denied the eating of sorbet “EVERY day”).
Maybe because her father had been a Leicester food inspector in the 1880’s, my grandmother had very definite views on food: Bovril, Italian ice cream, Mother’s Pride and Birds Instant Whip were all streng verboten. Milk was always suspect. Bemax, P.L.J., muesli, raisins, wholemeal bread and grapefruit were strongly recommended. When I stayed with her as child we shared a grapefruit for breakfast, with the addition of unlimited brown demerara sugar. (The same dish, popped under a hot grill until the sucrose bubbled & caramelised, used to be a popular starter at dinner parties of the period). To drink there would be tinned grapefruit juice which bore no relation to the modern carton drink. It was very thick, viscous and (as I recall) a dark yellow colour, the colour of a chrysanthemum. My grandmother would hack and tear the can with a heavy Victorian opener shaped like a black bull’s head, with a blade like that of a miniature guillotine below the animal’s jaw. I think now that maybe it was made of lead. It had a very distinctive smell, rather like dill, maybe the result of being impregnated with decades of fruit and other juices . The grapefruit nectar had a not unpleasant musty dusty taste: I drank it from a thick white china mug decorated with a picture of a jovial Yorkshire yokel in a blue smock. I wish I had that mug now.
Grapefruit in the 1960’s was ubiquitous. The juice – or alternatively, segments in heavy syrup¤ – was served as an appetiser in hotels & fancy restaurants (‘fine dining’ was then unheard of). We were shown (on Blue Peter, I think – or maybe in the Blue Peter Annual) how to use the empty fruit rinds as growing pots for bonsai trees. “Burn off the roots as they emerge through the skin to keep the plant dwarfed…”. My mother was very sceptical and we had an entirely unsuccessful attempt with acorns before all rotted. Fanny Cradock ( pronouncing them “grrrrapefruit” ) dolled them up for the dinner table, filling the half shells with coloured brandy butter – “a harmless food dye” – stuck with crystallised fruit. There was also a very popular reducing diet – you ate grapefruit before every meal to kill your appetite – and I seem to remember a variant whereby one lived exclusively on hard boiled eggs¤¤ and the said fruit.
So grapefruit has “previous” and a rich “back story”. Grapefruit can also work well as a delicious perfume accord if you fancy something a little bracing and original. With more body to it than lemon and less sweet than orange or mandarin, grapefruit has a challenging, more assertive even faintly sweaty (ergo erotic) aroma. See if you can track down a bottle of Caron’s Alpona, said to be the first fragrance in the world to blend flowers with this particular fruit. Grapefruit accords can also demonstrate sophisticated froideur, a coolness well illustrated by Creed’s Royal Water which is as frosty as though fresh out the ice box, then spiced with a slow burn of black pepper, cumin and peppermint. Try Atelier Cologne’s new Pomelo Paradis – with its juicy sweetness which makes the mouth water as though with wine gums; and smell the intriguing grapefruit-like molecules emanating from the woody earthy depths of Heeley’s Vetiver Veritas.
A immaculately elegant and perceptive colleague said to me just the other day: “Grapefruit? It’s the new black!” There can be no safer guide to chic.
Finally, there is also a huge and unlooked-for bonus in the wearing of a grapefruit fragrance which has been pointed out to me by a dear friend and expert of many years in this very tough business. And that is, “scientists have proved ” that a grapefruit accord on the skin can make you appear years younger than your actual age. Can you imagine it? Lemon Wedge is no chemist (though he may be something of a psychologist) so he’ll refer you to the abundant material germane to this absolutely fascinating theory on Google. Oh, see for yourselves as Frankie Howerd used to say.
¤ indeed “grapefruit segments” became something of a catchphrase in Private Eye magazine. We also ate them for breakfast at school as a Sunday treat – these were of a more austere type, presented therefore either in a “light syrup” or stewing in “their own natural juices”.
¤¤ a nutty theory went the rounds to the effect that hard boiled eggs require so many calories to digest that if you eat enough you ultimately starve to death.