We can thank Spain for flamenco, paella, and Antonio Banderas. But in December, we should be grateful for the country's most exquisite export―the fragrant, brightly colored mandarin oranges known as clementines. The fruits were named after Father Clément, the priest who began cultivating them in Algeria at the start of the 20th century. Spain can be grateful to us in return, because 83,000 metric tons are now imported here annually, and most are Spanish―the rest are from Morocco.
It's not difficult to understand why clementines translate so well. Their utterly seductive flavor is at once intensely citrusy yet supremely sweet. In her Fruit Book, Jane Grigson attributes the distinctiveness to a hybrid parentage linking the mandarin orange and the bitter Seville. But the appeal goes even further. Like tangerines, to which they are related, clementines are also extremely easy to work with. Their skin is loose and easy to peel, and the silky flesh inside is virtually seedless (although in some cases accidental cross-pollination with seeded fruits can produce the occasional clementine with a few seeds). There's a nutritional payoff, too: An average clementine packs up to half of the Recommended Dietary Allowance for vitamin C and is also a good source of fiber.
Most clementines you'll see during the peak season (it stretches from October to February) are packed in charming wooden or cardboard crates with exotic labels and bright-orange netting over the top. As if the fruit didn't already provide enough pleasure, its very mode of delivery offers yet another utility: As colorful as poinsettias and far more useful, crates of clementines make ideal gifts.
And be assured that the crates―each holding two to three dozen clementines―will be empty in a matter of days. A family can easily devour all of the fruit in no time, but the smart home cook will insist on reserving as much as possible for cooking. With sugary as well as tart notes, clementines lend themselves to both savory and sweet dishes, and are especially good in sauces, whether for a soufflé-like Dutch baby or for a roasted chicken. And holiday tables are the ideal venue for the extraordinary visual appeal of Jeweled Clementines in Vanilla Sauce, a dessert as splendid as it is simple.