I had a zesty evening.
Flavourful, certainly. Zippy. Zingy. Leave the daily grind for a bit of the extra-daily rind. A little bit goes a long way. An evening with friends sizzling with joie de vivre. But before they even arrived the zest had begun.
Required: one rasp and one rind. Well, OK, the rasp is actually a fine grating implement; it only looks like it’s made for filing metal or planing wood. And the rind is still the skin of an orange. But run the one against the other and you get thin bright orange shavings, ready for tossing in with port to cook a pot roast, or with mashed potatoes and butter (and eggnog, because Christmas), or with whipped cream. Sharp, sweet, a bit bitter. It doesn’t take much to get a lovely bright edge in the flavour, and at the end you still have the orange to eat.
We know that zest connotes a certain emphatic élan, fresh, if not tropical then at least topical, with its electric z and its echo of best. A flavour that is zesty is one with a spiky balance of sweet and sour and bitter that sparks your tongue. A person who has a zest for life always plays it full-contact with all their skin in the game. So I sometimes used to wonder how this sparkle came to be the name for the rind of an orange or lemon.
But I was viewing it inside out. Zest is first of all the name of the citrus rind or the seasoning that is made from it. English gets it from French zeste. French got it from some other place. We’re not sure where. We can’t get much below the surface with this etymology; it loses the trace. What we know for sure is that the zip that zest gives to food transferred itself with the word to other parts of life. We were using it to mean ‘relish’ or ‘gusto’ by the late 1700s, even as it has continued to mean what you use in marmalade.
And so the zest I had was first in the food, the orange rind zapping the flavour in its feet, and second in the company. Zest may speak only of the surface, but while the flesh inside is juicy, the outside is not to be discounted; the skin with which one meets the world is surface but not mere surface. As life shaves off bits of us day by day, those bits can add life to wherever they land, especially if we are alive and juicy inside. We give the world the most pungent part of ourselves, and it’s always in season.