by Eric J. Lyman
ROME, March 16 (Xinhua) -- A few weeks ago, the first two containers of blood oranges set off from Sicily, Italy on their way to China - the first move in what all sides are hoping will be a fruitful relationship.
The red-fleshed oranges - mostly of the "Tarocco" variety, with "Moro" and "Sanguinello" varieties also grown - thrive in the volcanic soil of Sicily, where the days are hot and sunny and temperatures are cool at night.
Oranges were first brought to Sicily during the island's Muslim conquest a thousand years ago.
The fruit's history is a colorful one. According to popular legend, the sweet "Tarocco" variety took its name from an 18th-century farmer who, upon seeing the dark red insides, considered it a kind of magic, comparing them to a mystical set of cards used to predict the future.
The varieties, known collectively as "Sicilian blood oranges", have a special protected geographical status in Italy, similar to that of specific kinds of top cheeses, wines or cured meats. The fruit has thick skin that is usually easy to peel, and a rich red-colored tasty flesh that is often squeezed to extract a striking version of fresh orange juice. The "Tarocco" variety has higher Vitamin C content than any other orange variety and is also rich in minerals.
Sicilian oranges are common in Italy, but rarer elsewhere. The plan in both Italy and China is for them to become a more common sight in Chinese markets.
Italy and China reached an agreement two years ago on the export of Sicilian blood oranges to the Asian country. The deal comprised quarantine requirements aimed at preventing the spread of plant disease. But according to Federica Argentati, president of Agrumi di Sicilia, a Sicilian citrus growers' group, the agreement allowed exports by sea only, which made things challenging since the oranges lose flavor if picked before they are ripe.
But this year, Italy's Minister of Agriculture Gian Marco Centinaio signed an agreement in Beijing with Chinese Vice Minister of Culture and Tourism Zhang Xu to allow shipments by air. The first two containers were flown from Sicily soon after, with more orange shipments to follow.
"We have high hopes for the Chinese market, though even with the agreement for air transport there are problems," Argentati told Xinhua. The high cost of air transport adds 1.50 euros (1.70 U.S. dollars) to every kilogram of fruit, making the fruit significantly more expensive in China than in Italy or other European markets.
"We know there is interest in the Chinese market for our red oranges, but it remains to be seen how consumers will react to the higher costs," Argentati said.
Producers of the Sicilian blood oranges market their product under the "Made in Italy" label best known for luxury products such as fashion, furniture, designer products and high-end foodstuffs. Oranges are unusual in this mix in that they are simply picked from trees and sold, with no process that adds value to the basic product.
According to Silvana Ballotta, head of Business Strategies, an advisory firm focusing on the Chinese market, that could hurt marketing in China. But Ballotta said there's another problem: production of the Sicilian blood oranges is limited without much room for expansion.
"Exporting to China only makes sense if the volume is high," Ballotta said in an interview. "It seems like there is enough interest in China that sales could rise. But if they rise too high, it's not clear if Italian farmers will be able to meet the demand. The oranges can only grow under specific circumstances and so production can't rise too much.