The clementines begin to arrive from Sicily toward the end of November, packed into crates facing out from trucks framed by steel bars at the sides. Smaller than navel oranges, ovoid in shape, dark green leaves left attached by the stem to make them more orchard-fresh.
Clementines have been sold this way on the roadside in Italy for centuries. Sunshine in the palm of the hand, a burst of freshness to slice through the socked-in valley of the Arno that stays stubbornly grey all winter long. The days of endless Tuscan sun are promptly followed by soaked grey days of darkness and Tuscan thunder. I tuck one into my bag before leaving the house each morning, a modest mid-morning snack to anticipate with pleasure.
To peel and divide a clementine in December is to undertake a citrus dissection, biting the crescent in half, the cool liquid filling your mouth, mopping it clean with astringent and cloying pulp. You can taste the southern rays, close your eyes and smell the dust of Agrigento’s temples, the salt air blowing north from the African coast to a shore known by everyone down the course of history. The tiny beads of the orange burst between your teeth, reminding you there is hope even in the darkest days, and that summer appears in winter in this spritely form, rolling and cheery, game and full of laughter.