I’m standing in the middle of an orchard, somewhere south of Valencia near the coast. The air is thick and viscous with humidity, covering me in a slick of sweat, and heady with the overwhelming aroma of citrus mingling with a subtle hint of salt. On the table in front of me sits a multitude of citrus fruits in varying shapes and sizes; some uniform and round, others mangled and multifaceted.

This orchard is not just any farm, and the trees are not just any citrus. I have flown here all the way from London – and then driven an hour from Valencia – to visit Todolí Citrus Fundació, an 11-acre plot of land dedicated to the research and development of over 400 varieties of citrus. It is, admittedly, a niche purpose, but one that is no less important – especially when you consider its potential impact on further understanding the things we eat and the delicate balance of how they’re grown.

From the moment we began our descent into Valencia – over sprawling stretches of greenery cultivating citrus groves – to our first steps down the city’s fruit stall-lined streets resplendent with buckets of oranges like little orbs of sunshine, it was evident why this is a region so synonymous with citrus fruits. The topography of the area can be largely attributed to why these fruits thrive here. A warm climate, rich soils and intense humidity all help the orchards on the farm flourish. “As clouds come over from Corsica, they crash into the mountains behind,” explains Vicente Todolí. The water vapour turns to rain and helps keep the ground below green and plush – or, in the case of the foundation, full of golden hues.

In fact, if you scan any supermarket in the UK, it’s likely your oranges, clementines, grapefruits and limes may just come from the region, too. But this presents a problem in itself: as certain varieties become more popular and dominate the market and demand, and farming for this select group becomes more lucrative, the region becomes at risk of losing its immense biodiversity on the citrus front, with a small number of fruits being planted for their popularity in the wider market, and less space for the great amount of diverse varieties to grow naturally.

Todolí stepped away from the Tate Modern to turn his family's land into a citrus orchard

That’s where Todolí comes in. Vicente Todolí stepped away from a thriving career in the arts – including seven years as the director of Tate Modern – to return to his home country of Spain and turn his family’s land into an orchard dedicated to growing and researching as many varieties of citrus as possible. It’s work that benefits us on all levels of the food chain – from the source point to cooking. The latter is what captured the attention of Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover, owners of London’s Toklas. And it’s not just citrus that they have in common with Todolí either – the duo were the ones behind London’s Frieze Art Fair, making this a partnership borne through both art and food.

And so it was in that vein that I found myself in the Bombas Gens Art Centre – of which Vicente Todolí is a patron – one of the venues putting Valencia on the map as a true artistic destination. The collection ranged from the obscure to the straightforward, but I found myself particularly drawn to an exhibition of photographic works by Hans-Peter Feldman depicting flowers against monochromatic backgrounds. They were stark in their simplicity and yet so capturing in their detail. It seemed like the most beautiful celebration of the diversity of the natural world – a concept of great importance and an idea that would hold even more significance the next day on our tour of the orchard when I again found myself face-to-face with a series of brightly-coloured natural objects on a single-toned background, except this time it was a series of fruit on a plastic fold out table, and they were real and in front of me, rather than photographs on a wall.

Our walk through the farm followed a distinct format: touring each section of trees before stopping for a tasting session based on each primary citrus pillar: citrus micrantha, citrus medica, citrus reticulata and citrus maxima (plus the reticulata and maxima hybrids, which are the umbrella category for most oranges). It was more acid than one human should comfortably consume in such a short period of time – and certainly set me up with a short bout of acid reflux, partly driven by the fact that a lot of these fruit won’t reach full ripeness – and in turn, sweetness – until the winter. But, health concerns aside, it was an illuminating reference point for the importance of the work being done at Todolí from a culinary perspective. The range in flavour profiles and aroma was astounding, even among varieties that would, at first glance, appear to be similar.

Take, for example, the calamansi. This tiny fruit, almost no larger than a gobstopper, looks from the outside like, perhaps, a baby lime. Cut it open, however, and you see the inside is a vivid orange. Native to the Philippines, calamansi has a flavour profile that sits somewhere at the intersection of lemon, lime and orange, with a bracing hit of acidity but an underpinning of sweetness reminiscent of an orange or a mandarin. It is used in many formats, but one of my favourite uses for it, toyomansi, was discovered on a trip to the Philippines in 2022. This deceptively simple sauce mixes soy sauce, calamansi juice, garlic and chilli into a powerful flavour combination that makes even the simplest of ingredients, like rice, seem like a culinary masterpiece. Without this focus on citrus diversity, naturally growing fruits like calamansi would run the risk of being overrun by more popular, widespread varieties like oranges and lemons.

Cut open the lime-like calamansi and the inside is a vivid orange

“Citrus diversity is so important,” Slotover tells me when I ask about the restaurant’s partnership with the foundation. “When we visited the farm I don’t think anyone had any idea of the variety of citrus that existed. There were species that were so delicious and interesting it was a shock that they were not more widely available.” While it may be a collaboration that drew from a desire to explore and promote this diversity, the benefits on the menu at Toklas have been widespread. “There are so many places you can use citrus at a restaurant, from cocktails to fish crudo, tarts, ice creams and sorbets,” Slotover says. “Citrus is such a healthy, delicious, bright and happy addition to a winter menu. It brings some Mediterranean sunshine to a rainy London day.”

A few months later back in rainy London, I head to Toklas on a frigid winter evening to see these – finally ripe – citrus fruits get put to work on the plate. Head chef Yohei Furuhashi has designed a special menu for the select purpose of showcasing Todolí’s work, while the man himself gave diners a condensed version of the tasting we had at the farm. An elegant salad of pineapple orange and kiyomi tangor topped with shaved pane citron showcased these fruits in their most basic format. Simply dressed with olive oil, salt and olives, it was bright and fresh and the direct antithesis to the relentless darkness outside the windows. It also held a depth of flavour that simply wouldn’t have been found in an equivalent salad put together with the popular varieties you can source at your local supermarket.

Delicate scallop crudo was paired with weiweka tangelo (a grapefruit and sampson tangelo hybrid), puntarelle and bottarga. Again, the unique tasting notes in the citrus perfectly complemented the nuttiness of the scallop. Winter eating itself seemed to be personified in the grilled duck with moro blood orange and endive, mingling sweet and bitter flavours with the deep umami of the duck itself. The crimson tone of the moro blood orange belies its flavour profile; sweet, with hints of raspberry and a more concentrated bitterness than other fruit in the same family. Dessert featured a silky vanilla panna cotta which was delicious and yet entirely overshadowed by the citrus trio that came alongside it: a caramelised melange of pink navel (a variety of orange with a pink flesh), lumia de sarzana (a variety of pomelo-lemon hybrid) and kumquat maxima (essentially a giant kumquat). Each mouthful brought something new along with it: hints of bergamot, floral flavours, or an underlying sweetness tempered by a touch of bitterness.

“It made me rethink the different profiles of citrus; there are sweet, sour, bitter and aromatic ones, and I try to incorporate these taste profiles across the menu,” says Furuhashi, when I ask about the benefit of product diversity in cooking. “I see this as an opportunity to promote eating seasonal produce. The more people that are aware of the seasonality of food and eating in season, the better. Eating in season not only tastes better, but it’s also good for the environment.”

It was a meal that brought our time in Valencia to life, both on the plate and the palate. The significance of these unique varieties of citrus spreads well beyond biodiversity and the importance there – although that is crucial – but to the kitchen as well. To cook and dine well is a pleasure, and to experiment with flavour profiles is a kind of creativity that should never be hindered by homogenisation. The work that Todolí Citrus Fundació is doing, and the way its products are interpreted on menus in London and beyond, is key to maintaining and growing the way we interact with our food systems as more than simply sustenance, but a key part of the worlds of nature and flavour.