While driving through Spain one spring, I was enchanted with the vistas and beauty of the extensive orange groves of Valencia and Andalusia. Spanish oranges have long been famous and Spanish cooks use the fruit creatively in their cuisine.

The orange is an ancient citrus fruit that is believed to have originated in southern China thousands of years ago.Several varieties are known to have been cultivated in Southeast Asian countries at a very early date. Arabs brought oranges to the eastern Mediterranean where they flourished and were symbols of love and have long been associated with marriage.

The name "orange" does not come from its color. It derived from a Tamil word meaning fragrant. In India's Sanskrit, the name was naranga, which eventually became orange in France and naranga in Spain.

Citrus fruits, including the orange, were brought across North Africa to Spain by the Moors, who planted small groves of orange trees in their capitals of Cordova and Granada in Andalusia as early as the 7th century. Over the years the plantings were extended considerably and reached the eastern province of Valencia.

Until the 1500s, the orange grown in Spain was the bitter or sour fruit also called bigarade and Seville (after Seville, Spain). Native to India, it has a red-orange skin and pulp that is too acid and bitter to eat raw. It is highly regarded, however, for its seasoning and aromatic qualities.

In Spain the rind is candied and provides an oil that is used as a flavoring for desserts, liqueurs and orange bitters. The orange is also used to make excellent marmalades and preserves and is an essential ingredient of the well-known sauce, bigarade, served with ducks and game. The strongly scented blossoms form the basis for orange-flower water, an important culinary flavoring.

his bitter orange and the blood, or Maltese, orange (with red-streaked pulp) are still grown extensively in Spain. Sweet oranges, also called China oranges, reached Spain from Portugal where sailors had brought them from the Orient. They flourished in the favourable southern climate and over the years the best known sweet orange became the golden-yellow Valencia, or Spanish orange-large, heavy and juicy. It also is grown in great quantity in America.

Columbus carried seeds for the first orange trees to reach the New World. He planted them on Hispaniola in 1493. By the mid-1500s the fruit was growing throughout the Caribbean area. Spanis conquistadors later introduced oranges to mainland America where they flourished, particularly in Florida. Many varieties were developed from the original Spanish bitter orange plants.

All oranges grow on an attractive evergreen tree which has shiny dark green leaves and fragrant white flowers. The tree is so handsome that for centuries it was grown in Europe as an ornament, relished for its beauty rather than its fruit. Kings and other royal personages vied wih each other to design elaborate orangeries, green houses featuring indoor groves of oranges.

Spain has millions of orange trees that bear several crops a year. Some are so hardy that after several hundred years they are still bearing fruit.

In the spring the drive from Valencia southward toward Alicante through the groves at night is a spectacular experience. It is then that the orange blossoms open and release waves of a thick perfume so heavily aromatic that it can be overpowering. In the moonlight the fruit shines silver instead of red-gold.

The favorite way of eating an orange in Spain is as a dessert fruit that the diner peels with a fruit knife and eats with a fork on a plate. This is a common finale to a traditional meal.

Oranges are made into luscious salads and the fruit is used to flavor some fish, poultry and game dishes. Both the fruit and juice, and also the peel, add flavor and color to the well-known wine punch, sangrai.

Given below are three appealing Spanish orange recipes.

SPANISH ORANGE-ONION SALAD

(4 servings)

2 navel oranges, peeled and sliced thinly 1 medium onion, peeled and sliced 1/4 cup olive oil 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar Salt, pepper to taste Cris salad greens, washed and dried

Combine oranges, union, oil, vinegar, salt and pepper in a medium-size bowl. Leave to marinate at room temperature 1 hour. Serve over salad greens.

SANGRIA

(4 to 6 servings)

1 bottle (.75 liter) dry red wine Juice of 1 orange Juice of 1/2 lemon 1/4 to 1/3 cup sugar 1 orange, peeled and sliced Spiral of orange and lemon peel Soda water to taste, chilled Ice cubes (optional)

Combine wine, orange and lemon juices and sugar in a large pitcher. Stir well. Add orange slices and orange and lemon peels. Refrigerate 1 hour or longer to chill. Stir again. Add as much soda as desired. Pour into chilled wine glasses over ice cubes, if desired.

ORANGE CUP

(4 servings)

4 medium-size oranges 4 cups orange juice 2 tablespoons cornstarch 1/2 cup sugar 4 egg yolks 4 glace cherries (optional)

Slice tops off oranges, cut off about 1 inch. Scoop out fruit and pulp, removing some of white to make a clean shell but being careful not to break the skin. Squeeze and strain juice, adding additional juice as needed to make 4 cups. Combine cornstarch, sugar and egg yolks in a medium-size saucepan. Mix well. Add juice and beat until smooth. Cook, stirring frequently, for several minutes until thickened and smooth. Cool. Spoon into orange shells. Chill. Top each with a cherry.