Interview with Adrià Besó

© Andrea González Garrigas

The orange, a citric rich in vitamin C, has been a symbol of the prosperity of the region of Valencia for the last two centuries. This fruit became Valencia’s hallmark— it enriched anyone who grew it and was an inspiration for many artists. Large orange groves filled the Eastern coast of Spain during these two centuries.

Adrià Besó, PhD in the History of Art , reviews the history of the orange in Valencia in an exhibition called Horts de Tarongers. Visions culturals d’un paisatge (Orange groves. Cultural views of a landscape) at the Botanic Gardens of the University of Valencia. We talked about the origins of orange tree growing in the region of Valencia, its importance in economy and the arts and the future prospects of this fruit in our fields.

Is the orange still Valencia’s hallmark?
That is hard question (laughs). I believe that not so much anymore. Now they are trying to focus Valencia’s identity on more modern creations like the City of Arts and Sciences. Some are trying to substitute the orange as Valencia’s hallmark for more modern things, completely detached from the traditional Valencian identity.

The orange fruit is very rich in vitamins A and C, calcium and fibre, low in cholesterol and, besides, does not need much care. It is easy to grow and very profitable. Was this the key to its success in the past?
I think the key to its success lies in its origins. The orange tree was a garden tree and during the 19th century it became a kind of tree grown for agriculture. It had always been valued for its fruits and its beauty in general, but around 1780 father Monzó planted orange trees which turned out to be highly profitable. In Valencian orchards people used to grow trees whose fruits were highly valued, like the pomegranate tree, but since then the orange tree became almost the only species grown. Many people followed father Monzó’s example and started growing orange trees, which made the priest think the growing of this tree would bring economic prosperity. However, this never happened. The Valencian market, as well as the Spanish market, was not ready to work with unessential products produced on a broad scale. Other European countries, more developed both industrially and economically, could afford it, but did not have the necessary transportation means that would take the fruit there in a short time. By the mid 19th century the railway and the steamboat appeared, which made transportation easier. But in 1880 Valencia held the Automatic Water Elevator Unit Exhibition, which spread these new inventions that facilitated irrigation. From this moment on the region of Valencia was filled with orange tree orchards. Oranges, therefore, were now valued for two different reasons— on the one hand, their high economic profitability; on the other, their beauty.

A common picture people have of Valencia is that of the bourgeois landowners living alongside peasants. Was their relationship a friendly and collaborative one or, on the contrary, a relationship characterised by class difference?
Their relationship was not the typical one expected from Andalusian landowners, for instance. Actually, many authors have studied this relationship both academically and in literature. In The Torrent, Blasco Ibáñez talks about the marketplace in Alzira and says that peasants there used to dress like the bourgeoisie. This is an example of how profitable the growing of this fruit was for everyone, even workers. These groves need care all year long, although it is during the harvest when more work is required, obviously. Orange tree growing also gives work to people doing labels, storage boxes… there is a whole industry around oranges. Obviously there was a hierarchical relationship between landowners and peasants, but it did not mean there was class struggle, precisely because it is a business that gives work to many people and that allows certain social stability. That is why the orange is thought of as a «golden fruit», because it enriches the whole population.

And why were these orange groves such an inspiration for artists like Joaquín Sorolla or Vicente Blasco Ibáñez?
I think it was mainly due to the aesthetic qualities of the tree, which were already recognised when it was a garden tree. These aesthetic qualities where then also applied to a whole landscape, to which Blasco Ibáñez dedicated a whole book.

What artist do you think has contributed the most to the idealisation of the orange grove landscape?
Well, all of them in general. The different ways photographers, painters and writers look at the landscape are interrelated. I would not dare to choose one. Every artistic expression values the landscape in its own way. The first ones to approach the orange tree were the first travellers from the 18th century; later on, Teodor Llorent or Blasco Ibáñez started praising the orange grove landscape for itself. They focused on the orange tree beauty and the beauty of the landscape. From then on painters like Joaquín Sorolla, Teodor Andreu or Julio Peris Brell use the orange grove as a set for a love story. That is, it becomes the place where a love story is contextualised with a bit of eroticism— which Blasco Ibáñez also does in his novel The Torrent. Photography and cinematography were also used in this sense. So I wouldn’t talk in terms of who valued it more, but in terms of a chronological succession of landscape representation from different cultural expressions.

© Andrea González Garrigas

«Some are trying to substitute the orange as Valencia’s hallmark for more modern things, completely detached from the traditional Valencian identity»

© Andrea González Garrigas

«We have to take into account the work done by our ancestors, especially the working hours and the effort made to create the groves that nowadays are disappearing due to low profits»

In this review there is an ever-present key figure— the peasant. What does our generation owe to these people?
As I have already mentioned orange groves are intensive crops. They grew thanks to human work because up until the 1940s there were no tractors and wells were hand-dug. This has to be considered when people intend, for instance, to make urban soil of these areas. We have to take into account the work done by our ancestors, especially the working hours and the effort made to create the groves that nowadays are disappearing due to low profits. We have to value both the work done by the owners who transformed dry land into well-stocked orchards, and the work done by the employees that worked for them.

So, in your opinion, the groves’ current condition is not an ideal one.
Exactly. In fact many authors talk about the end of the orange as an economic cycle. It is not only a one-off crisis, like the WWI one or the post Civil War one— it is a structural crisis. This decrease in profits has been noticeable for the last decade, and groves are being increasingly abandoned. Every year I go to Alzira and Carcaixent to watch the orange groves and I find five or six new pieces of land abandoned every time. In addition, the ones that are still cared for are not so well kept as in previous years because it takes a lot of money to maintain them.

It is not difficult to find people in Valencia who have inherited groves from their parents or grandparents. They usually abandon them because it is not profitable to take care of them. Should we think up new measures to obtain a profit from these groves so that they are not abandoned?
In many cases these orchards are kept for sentimental reasons, because people see in them a symbol of the effort made by their ancestors. I come from a family of peasants, and when my father died he left me some groves. I took care of them for a year, but after that I had to leave it because I could not devote to them the time they needed. In addition, they cost me money. I know retired people who have the time to take care of the trees, but when they die their children are not going to be able to keep them, because it is impossible. In recent years it was thought that the alternative was to make these groves urban soil, a model that, fortunately, went into crisis because it was unsustainable and merely speculative. Other crops are now trying to re-launch the agricultural sector in the region of Valencia. One of the most successful crops is the persimmon, which turns out to be highly profitable. there are other orange groves that have become holiday cottages or sell their oranges on the Internet.

Do you think one day these groves will have completely disappeared and will only be an old memory?
Yes, I do. The orange tree will disappear from the Valencian landscape, and it won’t take long for that to happen. The problem is due to an over-supply of oranges and high production costs as a result of the lack of strategic planning from public institutions. But we can’t reduce the value of oranges to economy— they have a high cultural value. No other plant has ever been so highly valued in the region of Valencia. There were other popular crops, like rice, but did no have so big an impact on the people’s social life as the orange tree. The orange was a symbol of Valencia and Spain, but it seems that we have forgotten about this in a few years. This process has been linked to an attempt in changing our image. Now we want to promote newfangled entities like Formula 1 or the City of Arts and Sciences. I don’t mean to say that we have to cling to the past. We have to progress and look to the future, but not forgetting or giving up our past and our hallmarks. One of them is this landscape, of which we should be proud because we owe to it a great deal of the current prosperity.

Andrea González Garrigas. Student of Journalism at the University of Valencia.
© Mètode 2013.

«Many authors talk about the end of the orange as an economic cycle. It is not only a one-off crisis, like the WWI one or the post Civil War one— it is a structural crisis»

© Mètode 2013