Monday, February 27, 2017

Les Petit Grains

Petitgrain?  confusing.  that's what it is.

First of all, the name.  "Petitgrain" is French for "Little grain"  but it is distilled from the leaf.  Why not "Petitfeuilles"  "little leaves:?

A bitter orange tree
The reason for the name, we are told, is that sometimes tiny, immature fruits go into the still, along with the delicate twigs and leaves.  Perhaps the immature fruits were as tiny as grains of rice, or other grains.  I don't know. I have not observed this. But here we are. "Little grains" from an oil distilled from the leaves of the bitter orange tree, that yields our precious and rare Neroli, and Orange Blossom Absolute, and Bitter Orange essential oil. Citrus aurantium.  Bitter orange.  Straightforward, right?

Nope. It gets confusing.

Years ago we brought Petitgrain oil from Italy, sometimes from France.  Occasionally I could detect a hint of a citrus note, sometimes (rarely,) it was a lovely, clear leafy green. But for the last few years it had a muddy note. It lacked the clarity that I was looking for.  And I couldn't find one that I loved. So we offered it, reluctantly; I seldom blended with it, except for my beloved Reunité.  I forgot about it.

Then all of a sudden, all the Petitgrain on the market seemed to be from Paraguay.  Hmmm.  Was it any better?  No, if anything I liked it less. We continued to offer it.  Most sources labeled the Paraguay oil "Petitgrain bigarade" just like the European one. We did too.   But I started to see some sources labeling this same oil "Petitgrain Paraguay" and I wondered why.  It appeared to be from the same botanical, after all.

And then two things happened.  First, I started reading.  And discovered that while European Petitgrain bigarade is distilled from the leaves (and possibly twigs and immature fruit) of the BITTER Orange tree, Citrus aurantium L. ssp. amara engl., the tree that yields the Paraguay oil was the BITTERSWEET orange,  Citrus aurantium var bigaradia.   So the true Petitgrain bigarade does not come from the bittersweet var bigaradia.  Are we having fun yet?

Description from The Citrus Industry Vol. 1 (1967):

" The bittersweet orange group, which contains at least two varieties, may be regarded as a subgroup of the common bitter orange, from which it differs mainly in lower acidity and better flavor.  Formerly thought to be a hybrid of the sweet and sour oranges, the weight of evidence suggests that the bittersweet orange originated as a mutation from the latter.  It appears to be identical with the fruit described by Risso and Poiteau (1818-22, p. 101) as the sweet-fruited bitter orange of the Mediterranean basin.  It seems likely that the Spanish took this orange to both Florida and South America, for it was early found in the former and occurs extensively in Paraguay where it comprises an important source of oil of petit grain. 


The leaves and twigs of the bittersweet orange are used to make petitgrain (Paraguay) oil by steam distillation. The peel of the immature fruit is used to obtain bigarade oil by cold expression. These oils are not as highly esteemed as Neroli petitgrain or Neroli bigarade from the common sour orange, but they are largely used in perfumery and in aromatherapy. The most important producer of these is still Paraguay. For more information see citrus oils.

Ah.  That explains why I didn't like it.   And indicates a difference in nomenclature!  Hence our recent clearance sale of our "mislabeled" Petitgrain paraguay.  It was labeled Petitgrain bigarade. It truly was Petitgrain Paraguay. 

Now, about why you should care, other than the fact that the European Neroli Bigarade or Neroli Petitgrain (or Petitgrain bigarade which is what every supplier I have ever seen has labeled it) is "more highly esteemed."   (ie, it smells better.)  but why use it?

Oh.. what I forgot to say, above. this new Italian Petitgrain (which, apparently, we could/should be calling either Neroli Petitgrain, or Neroli bigarade, but it's already labeled and we are not changing those labels!) what I forgot to say it that it is not muddy!  It is a beautiful soft green aroma, with hints of citrus and perhaps hints of floral.  I *like* it!. 

(Read the earlier section of this article here.)



Anonymous said...

I will have to read this post more than one time to absorb this!!

If I want to order this product for a relaxing experience what do I look for- Petitgrain bigarade from Italy, Petitgrain clementine from France or Petitgrain combava from Madagascar?

This is very interesting, who knew such confusion over a species was possible!

Marge said...

My choice would be the Petitgrain Bigarade, from Italy. Now, I have not used the other petigrains for this use, so they may work as well. I just shared what I have personally observed with this Italian Bigarade. If you have the others at hand, I would certainly try them. But if you are buying especially, I would go with the Bigarade. Or, at the very least, request samples of all three with an order and see wich one works best for you?