This fascinating book covers many subjects including travel, history, botany, economics, the inevitable recipes and of course, oranges and lemons. Helena Attlee organises garden tours to Italy and this has given her an intimate knowledge of the citrus culture in that country. For example, she claims that the world's best blood oranges are grown in Sicily and that Calabria is home to the best Bergamot orange as well as the best citrons. Also, that modern day mandarins developed spontaneously in Palermo, Sicily. This book is stuffed with facts and is never dry or boring.
Citrus species are indigenous to the hot and humid climates of south-east Asia. How then did these fruits arrive in Italy? Sometime in the early 9th century invading Arab armies brought certain varieties of citrus fruit with them as well as the noria. The noria is a vertically-shaped wheel which lifts water into an irrigation aqueduct. This replaced the old hit and miss gravity-fed irrigation techniques introduced by the Romans and provided humid conditions similar to those found in south-east Asian countries. It is generally agreed that lemons and sour oranges were brought to Europe in the 15th century by Portuguese traders.
The book is full of interesting information about citrus, for example, that citrus species easily cross pollinate - unusual in the plant kingdom. Thus from the original three species, the pomelo (Citrus maxima), the mandarin (C.reticulata) and the citron (C.medica) we now have a bewildering array of economic and non-economic hybrids. The sour orange (C. aurantium) is a mandarin/pomelo cross, whereas the sweet orange (C.sinensis) is a back-cross between a sour orange and a mandarin. The grapefruit is a pomelo/orange cross and the lemon is a citron/sour orange cross. A veritable nightmare for the plant taxonomist. I must admit it had me reaching for the "Plant List" for clarification. Attlee could make life a little easier and clearer, for those with a taxonomic bent, if she devoted a short appendix to describing the various species, hybrids and citrus classifications.
Helena Attlee claims that the best blood oranges in the world grow on a plain below Mount Etna at the eastern end of Sicily. The "blood" is a naturally occurring red anthocyanin which is considered to be healthy. This has brought blood oranges to the notice of the food industry and attempts are underway to identify the causal gene and then to modify oranges genetically. If this happens it could spell the end to yet another cottage industry in the Mediterranean basin.
Calabria, at the toe of Italy, is the home to the world's best bergamot oranges (C.bergamia, "an unresolved Latin name" according to the ‘Plant List’). The bergamot orange is a natural lemon and sour orange cross and occurred sometime during the 17th century. These oranges, grown for their perfumed oil, thrive on a very thin coastal belt, only 75km long, close to the Tyrrhenian Sea at the foot of Italy. Giovanni Farina who invented eau de cologne was borne in Calabria in 1750. He included bergamot oil in his perfume to remind him of home. The famous Earl Grey tea also uses bergamot oil to create its own distinct taste.
The mandarin arrived in Palermo, Sicily in 1822. The name covers many thin-skinned, fragrant citrus including satsumas, tangelos, tangerines, clementines and hybrids. According to Attlee mandarins were usually harvested in November until a tardy grower left his harvest until March the following year. He found that his fruits were sweeter, the skins thinner and there were no pips. The modern day mandarin was born. This late-ripening variety was the result of genetic instability, another characteristic of the citrus family. By 1960 cheap imports of mandarins had killed local production from the terraces of the Conca d' Oro (golden bowl) in Sicily.
The citron (C. medica) originates from Assam in north-east India. It arrived in Europe about 70AD, long before the arrival of lemons and sour oranges with the Arabs. The citron, or ‘escrog’ in Hebrew, is a fruit with special religious significance to Jews who eat them during their Sukkoth religious celebrations. Jewish merchants fly to Calabria to buy the best escrogs in the world. These are then sold in New York where they may fetch up to $300 per citron.
The Amalfi coast, just south of Naples is a magnet for tourists. Lemons are trained to grow up overhead scaffolding on very steep terraces, making a very impressive sight. The lemons are probably the biggest in the world, at least double the size of normal lemons. They are juicy with a thick perfumed skin rich in essential oils. Unfortunately their cultivation is, or was, in decline due to the hard manual labour involved and poor returns. This is a familiar story in the Mediterranean basin where many traditional crops are under threat from cheap imports. Fortunately the remaining lemon growers have formed themselves into a co-operative and are now offering guided tours, home-made limoncello, visits to private gardens and more.
The citrus crop has always been a way of making money in Italy. By the 18th century the crop grown around Palermo proved so lucrative that it attracted investors looking for profits. A huge investment took place to clear land, top soil was brought in, irrigation installed and roads built. To protect their investments walls were built and arm guards with dogs were hired. This created conditions for the development of a protection organisation. The mafia was born.
By the mid 18th century tons of oranges and lemons were being produced on an industrial scale in and around Palermo. It was the largest agricultural industry in Europe with 19 million kilos of citrus exported in 1867. The Royal Navy ordered large quantities of lemons from Sicily, convinced that scurvy could be cured by eating citrus fruits. They used the term ‘limes’ for the fruit unloaded at Limehouse docks in London. To-day British sailors are still known as limeys.
In Europe, jam is generally referred to as marmalade following the Portuguese tradition of making ‘marmelada’ from quince. The British highjacked the word ‘marmelada’ and made it synonymous with jam made from sour Seville oranges. Even to-day the British buy their Seville oranges to make marmalade. The story goes that a ship laden with Seville oranges took shelter during a storm in Dundee, Scotland. The cargo was sold to a local grocer, James Keiller, who substituted the sour oranges for quince. The first marmalade factory opened early in the 19th century in Dundee.
This book gives a vivid account of how a fruit which we all take for granted shaped the history of Italy and the world. The next time I visit Italy this book will certainly go with me.
Review by David Bracey - Mediterranean Gardening France