We don't really tend to think outside the box that much with clementines. Unlike oranges, which permeate our gastronomic consciousness in all manifestations, clementines seem generally reserved, in the popular mindset, simply for raw eating, usually around Christmas. The few times clementines have cropped up on my culinary radar in other guises, they seem wildly exotic. I noticed cartons of clementine juice on the shelf in M&S a while back, which held a great allure for me simply because of its novelty factor. It is also, I suspect, a cunning ploy to charge twice the price for it because of said novelty; a bit like the fact that you can buy 'Pink Lady apple juice' and pay through the nose for the privilege of having a branded apple pulverised inside your carton.
Sometimes they crop up in baking - Nigella's clementine cake is justly famous around the world (and by 'the world', I mean 'recipe books and the internet', because that is my world), although I don't think it was Nigella who invented it; Claudia Roden has a version too, and versions abound everywhere under different titles and with a couple of ingredients added or tweaked.
The basic principle is always the same - boil clementines (or oranges) in water until soft, then smash in a blender with ground almonds, eggs, sugar and other good things to make a fabulously moist, orangey cake (I had a go myself, here, and smothered the lot in chocolate - it was delicious). Sometimes you see clementines in savoury cooking, but usually only where you'd otherwise find oranges - with duck, for example - rather than in any wildly novel pairing.
I've often thought that the clementine is the fruit I'm most fussy about. Sure, I like apples to be crisp without a hint of woolliness, but generally I find them edible in most shapes and forms. I like pineapple to be super-sweet without that mouth-puckering astringency, but I'll still tolerate it if it's a bit sour. Mango - ideally ripe and dripping with marigold juice, but I'll still settle for one rather firmer and with a hint of a chalky texture; these can be pleasant too, in their own way.
Bananas I enjoy when green (though my gran always swore these would give me headaches), but I'll still eat them riper than that, when really hungry. Soft fruit - raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries - is rarely inedible once given the room-temperature-and-sugar treatment. Papaya you can't go wrong with, really - I don't think the notion of an overripe papaya even exists in my consciousness. Pears can still be nice even if you've misinterpreted their state of ripeness; glassy and crunchy, they can be rather refreshing, albeit less perfumed and succulent than when truly ripe and dripping.
But the clementine? I reckon only 50% of the time a clementine gets it right.
I honestly believe I can tell a good clementine by sight. Sometimes I need the additional confirmation of picking it up, but generally I have a good idea how it's going to taste by how it looks. The skin should be quite thin, clinging desperately and lovingly to the flesh of the segments inside, rather than bulging out - this suggests lots of air spaces in between, which means the clementine has started to dry up and the segments are puckering unpleasantly. The best specimens are usually quite small, which means they are less watery and more full of sweet, tart juice. The clementine should feel swollen in the hand, bulging out against its skin, which should be taut and shiny.
I've had some really horrible clementines in my time. Nothing worse than biting into a segment to have your mouth filled with hideously flavourless juice, often with a slightly stale taste about it. Nothing worse than segments which are pale and puckered. A clementine should be tart, almost sour, but sweet at the same time. It should be irresistibly moreish - when you find a good batch, you should be able to contemplate eating eight in a single sitting.
A few weeks ago I was sent a box of such clementines by ClemenGold, a South African company specialising in exceptionally delicious clementines grown around the world. They have selection criteria for their fruit that are even fussier than I am: 48% juice content; 11% sugar level; acidity between 0.7 and 1.3%; each fruit containing no more than three seeds. This formula adds up to a clementine that is truly special, with just the right balance of sweetness and tartness. They're also easy to peel and virtually seedless, which is a bonus.
Apparently they're technically Nadorcott mandarins, though only the best get given the ClemenGold trademark. I'm still not entirely sure of the difference between a clementine, a tangerine, a satsuma, and a mandarin (can anyone enlighten me?) apart from the fact that mandarins are the ones you find in tins, and I think generally mandarins are a bit tarter than clementines. But they all get subjected to my sight-test criteria, and the same rules apply to them all.
When I say I was sent 'a box', perhaps 'a crate' would be more accurate. The most gigantic treasure trove of orange orbs arrived in the post, leading me to wonder if perhaps the company had mistaken me for a wholesaler. There must have been at least 200 fruits in said box. However, this may also have been a clever marketing ploy, because I was forced to distribute clementines to everyone I know so as not to waste them (much as I love a good clementine, even I am not a citrus-ingesting machine), and everyone who tried them was as wowed as I was. I'm pretty sure I must be single-handedly responsible for a spike in sales.
Should you wish to pursue these luscious orbs and inject a little edible sunshine into your own kitchen/mouth, they sell them at Asda, Morrisons, Booths (posh northern supermarket; can't wait til I move to York next week); Sainsburys and Waitrose. I bought some more yesterday, which are much larger than the original ones, but still have that excellent sweet-tart flavour, so I can (sort of) vouch for their consistency.
Should you ever find yourself in the privileged position of possessing a box of 200 clementines, I would obviously suggest eating them raw with gluttonous abandon, but if you want to do something a bit more creative, have a look at the recipe suggestions on the ClemenGold site, or do what I was just criticising (sorry for my gastronomic hypocrisy) and use them as you would oranges. In baking. In the form of mini muffins.
These are a simple cake batter, infused with clementine zest, a little honey, and some finely chopped rosemary. Don't ask me why; I just had an inkling that rosemary and clementines would work well together (and they do). I promise you it's not overly herbal or strange, just fragrant and delicious. The tops are smeared in a little molten white chocolate for added sweetness to complement the rosemary and citrus.
The best part is that they are tiny and adorable, with their little hats of white chocolate and clementine zest. This is also the worst part, because they are incredibly moreish and easy to eat in large batches, so you may hate yourself afterwards.
But it's nearly autumn now, and we need to fatten up for the winter, so here's a lovely clementine-inspired way of doing it.
(You can also bake these as normal-sized cupcakes, in which case the mixture makes 12)
150g butter, at room temperature
100g caster sugar
2 tbsp clear honey
3 medium eggs
150g self-raising flour, sifted
Zest of 2 large clementines
1 tbsp very finely chopped rosemary
60g white chocolate
Clementine zest, to decorate (optional)
Pre-heat the oven to 190C/170C fan oven. Line three 12-cup mini muffin tins with mini muffin paper cases (you may not need them all).
Beat the butter, sugar and honey together in a large bowl using an electric whisk, until the mixture is light and fluffy (about 3-5 minutes). Add the eggs and flour, then beat until smooth. Stir in the clementine zest and chopped rosemary.
Divide the mixture between the paper cases - a scant teaspoonful in each should do it - and bake for 10 minutes until just risen and slightly golden - they should be firm to the touch. Remove from the oven and allow to cool on a wire rack.
When cool, melt the white chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water (don't let the bowl touch the water), then spoon a little over the top of each muffin. Finish, if you like, with a sprinkling of more clementine zest.