Orange Blossom, Neroli, Petitgrain : Bitter Orange Notes

Seville orange

The bitter orange tree is one of the most useful for perfumery—every part yields an interesting raw material. The flowers provide orange blossom absolute and neroli oil, the leaves and tender buds give petitgrain, while the fruit peel contains the wonderfully rich and complex bitter orange oil.

Orange blossom and neroli are extracted from the flowers of the bitter orange tree (Citrus bigaradia), with the different methods of extraction determining the type and olfactory characteristics of the resulting oils. Orange blossom oil is extracted with volatile solvents, while neroli is steam-distilled. The former is warm, jasmine-like, with a sweet grape and indolic twist, while neroli is greener and spicier. The fruit of the bitter orange tree produces bitter orange oil (the distinctive note in Frédéric Malle Cologne Bigarade), and its leaves give the sparkling verdancy of petitgrain oil.

The more commonly encountered orange oil (sometimes called sweet orange oil) is actually the product of a different tree, the sweet orange tree (Citrus sinesis), and while its blossoms can also be steam-distilled, the result is an inferior, less fragrant grade of neroli. The flowers of other citrus varieties also yield either absolute or essential oil. One of my favorites is grapefruit flower oil, which was used to give a scintillating floral top note to Tom Ford for Men.

Neroli and orange blossom oils are among the most important ingredients in perfumery, decorating the top accords of chypre compositions, lending a fresh touch to floral bouquets and forming the bodies of classical colognes. A whole family of floral oriental fragrances was developed around the pairing of lush orange blossom and the warm accord of vanilla, heliotrope, musk and oriental balsams. This idea was first explored by Coty L’Origan and subsequently by the marvelous Guerlain L’Heure Bleue.

Winter is the season for bitter oranges; in addition to their uses in perfumery, they make for an aromatic flavoring in the kitchen. The peel can be used to make marmalade or can be made into a fragrant paste. Simply remove the colored zest, grate or mince it with an equal amount of sugar and store it in the fridge. Use a little bit to flavor anything from shortbread and rice pudding to fruit salad and lamb stew. Bitter orange juice can be substituted in any recipe calling for lemon. It is intensely tart and complex, and it will give a bright, floral fragrance that is reminiscent of green mandarins, fresh leaves and white petals.

Photo of bitter oranges from Flickr by basecadet, some rights reserved.

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17 Comments

  • Ines: Thank you so much for this! :)
    For some time now I’ve been wondering what’s the deal with neroli and orange blossom as I’ve realized they are made from the same thing but get referenced either as one or the other (and I was too lazy to google it). And don’t even smell the same. March 1, 2011 at 3:46am Reply

  • Olfactoria: I am so glad that the bitter orange tree exists, I love the various essential oils it yields. At the moment I can’t get enough of the smell, so I am rotating Bigarade Concentree, Grand Neroli and Orange Sanguine. :) March 1, 2011 at 4:17am Reply

  • sweetlife: Thanks so much for this, V. I had it all straight in my head when I started out so eagerly and was busy smelling raw materials, but when I have no reason to remember the information begins to fade.

    My fridge is actually full of bitter oranges right now. I have been slowly employing them, juice and rind, in various dishes and plan to candy the rest for a friend. They are so delicious to work with… Have you ever stood underneath one of the blooming trees? March 1, 2011 at 9:53am Reply

  • Susan Webster Adams: Fantastic post! Thanks so much for all this info. I LOVE orange so to learn all the differences is fantastic. Right now I’m burning Atelier Cologne Orange Sanguine and wearing Frederic Malle Bigarade Concentree. I can’t get enough orange. In the winter it perks me up. In the summer it freshens and cools me. I also love it in cooking. A zesty compliment to almost anything. March 1, 2011 at 10:19am Reply

  • Victoria: Right now, I am smelling different grades of petitgrain–oil, absolute, plus a few variations on those, and even within a single type of material, there are many different profiles and impressions. Such a wonderful tree! March 1, 2011 at 10:28am Reply

  • Victoria: You are welcome!
    It is amazing how different processing methods produce different results. I also have orange blossom water absolute (processing of a steam-distillation by-product,) which has the most intriguing smell. It is a smoky orange blossom! March 1, 2011 at 10:30am Reply

  • Victoria: I have a huge basket of bitter orange at home right now. I just use them in place of lemons. Mayonnaise made with bitter orange juice is one of the most delicious things.

    I once had a small bitter orange tree at home, and when it bloomed, it would fill the whole house. Unfortunately, it suffered from some sort of blight and died.

    If you ever have access to bitter orange leaves (or leaves from any other citrus tree,) try strewing them over fish as you grill it. The flavor is really incredible. March 1, 2011 at 10:33am Reply

  • Victoria: I am glad that you liked it! One of the reasons I love winter is the bitter orange season. You are right, the vibrant scent of citrus can be such a wonderful boost in the winter and a refreshing sensation in the summer. March 1, 2011 at 10:35am Reply

  • sweetlife: Oooh, good tip, V! We have a Meyer Lemon tree in the backyard, so will try this soon. (It is spring here already! Want to come visit?) Am imagining now, leaves on the fish, and a rosemary branch burning below… March 1, 2011 at 10:38am Reply

  • Victoria: Of course, I do! I have never been there, and I really want to explore that part of the US better. :)

    In Sicily, swordfish is marinated in lemon juice and olive oil, then skewered alternating with lemon leaves and grilled.
    Oh, and in the South of India, lemon leaves are shredded into a yogurt drink (mix yogurt, water, salt to taste, minced ginger and add a few crushed lemon leaves. Leave to infuse and chill in the fridge.) You can alternative seasonings, of course. It is a very refreshing beverage. March 1, 2011 at 10:44am Reply

  • sweetlife: Well the redbuds, tulip trees and Chinese plums are blooming right now. If you time your visit for late March you’ll catch the famous blue bonnets and other wildflowers. By April the lavender fields will be going. By May it will be start to goddamn hot again and you’ll have to wait for next year unless you want to visit our many wonderful swimming holes.

    At any rate, the guest room is (almost) ready!

    Of course you have to promise to cook at least once… ;) March 1, 2011 at 11:01am Reply

  • Victoria: So, it is a deal, and it sounds like an ideal arrangement. :)

    Chinese plums have a lovely fragrance, with a bitter almond note accenting the fresh, green impression. Ours are not yet ready. March 1, 2011 at 11:10am Reply

  • kjanicki: I’ve always been confused about the difference between orange blossom and neroli too, and I keep forgetting what petitgrain is. Thanks for the guide! The bitter orange peel of FM Bigarade Concentree is one of my favourite notes! March 1, 2011 at 12:37pm Reply

  • Victoria: I am glad that it is helpful! It is such a fascinating family. And to think that it all comes from the same plant.

    FM Bigarade Concentree is one of my favorite example of bitter orange oil. The initial stages are so exhilarating! March 1, 2011 at 12:43pm Reply

  • Madelyn E: Dear Victoria,
    great article ! I was inspired to go and enjoy eating an orange i.e. Cara Cara .
    I really appreciate your explanation of perfumery ” basics”. I adore citrus – orange notes in particular. Mayonnaise with bitter orange sounds divine . I will try it. Homemade mayonnaise is so superior to storebought. Where can you buy bitter orange ?
    Orange blossom notes in La Chasse Aux Papillons can inspire anyone I think.
    Looking forward to your next installment. March 1, 2011 at 7:09pm Reply

  • Victoria: Madelyn, thank you, I'm glad that you liked it. Oh, I love Cara Cara oranges, so tempted now to go out to buy some.
    I get bitter oranges from Whole Foods. There is also a website called Ripe to You, which sells different kinds of citrus. The shipping is super expensive though, if you are on the East Coast. March 1, 2011 at 7:25pm Reply

  • Stephanie B.: Do you know where I could purchase Grapefruit Flower Oil? July 23, 2012 at 12:48pm Reply

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