The Land Where Lemons Grow

Helena Attlee
Particular Books, €28.99;
ebook, €13.99

SOMETIMES a song stays in the heart rather than the ear and for no apparent reason at all. Which is why the title of this pleasing book struck the memory chord immediately: ‘Kennst du das land, wo die Zitronen bluhn…’ Do you know the land where the lemon trees bloom, amid the dark foliage the golden oranges glow… Do you know it well?’ The song is a poem by Goethe and since it first left his pen every composer who ever put a finger to a piano seems to have set it to music and Hugo Wolf’s version can be found in a recording of German lieder by Elizabeth Schwarzkopf.

It is this song, yearning for Italy, which gave Helena Attlee her title. Citrus to most of us means oranges and lemons so the subject doesn’t seem the most earth-shattering justification for a book, but Attlee quells any such haverings more or less immediately by the quality of her prose and the breadth of her knowledge. And by the story, or stories, she has to tell, flowing from the Castello gardens of the Medici to the Mafia of Sicily, from the crusaders of the 11th century to the scurvy-ridden sailors of the 18th; tangerines, mandarins and clementines to lemons, limes and Earl Grey tea.

The sour orange, citrus aurantium, was the first kind of orange to be used in Italy. Now kept mostly to make candied peel or marmalade, “for 200 years at least the unique, earthy and aromatic taste of sour orange juice was as essential to an Italian banquet as ketchup is to fast food.”

This orange is the result of cross-pollination and Attlee provides efficient explanations of the different production processes and varietal selections required to bring our own experience of citrus to its current levels of sophistication and predominance. She visits lemon groves, talks with gardeners and introduces recipes.

Predictably given the geography of its explorations this is a book full of digressions. As a writer about Italian gardens and a leader of visiting groups, Attlee can’t help meandering down some alluring botanical or historical pathways with literary references hedging the horticultural hot-beds, from Theophrastus to Hans Christian Anderson, Lampedusa, DH Lawrence and Edward Lear to name a few.

It appears that lemons first grew wild in Himalayan forests, while all oranges came originally from Assam and Burma, although there is now evidence that some originated in China. These fruits arrived in Italy with the Arabs landing in Sicily in 831 and were first planted in groves on the outskirts of Palermo, especially in the fertile landscape still known as the Conca d’Oro, or golden bowl. This lovely district was no proof, however, against the growth and eventual dominance of the criminal Cosa Nostra:

“The speculation, extortion, intimidation and protection rackets that characterise Mafia activity were first practiced and perfected in the mid-19th century among the citrus gardens of the Conca d’Oro, though they continue to blight politics, hobble the economy and cripple the lives of individuals on the island to this day’, writes Attlee, in the saddest chapter in her book.

While linking provenance and personalities with region after region she notices also the fingered citron and the pregnant varieties and the ‘bizzarria’ which seem to have resulted either fortuitously or through deliberate grafting and new growth. Her interviews and informal conversations with owners, growers and activists are especially revealing in terms of practice — of irrigation, for example — and management, from long-established family or rural custom to new methods of propagation and to the protection of small producers.

If criminal control in Sicily makes the scent of orange and lemon blossom begin to smell, as one visitor to Palermo writes, ‘like corpses’ there is some comfort to be had in reading about the introduction of the mandarin, deriving from two seedlings brought from China to England and shared by Kew with a garden in Malta and thence to Sicily. The comfort is short-lived; the mandarin groves of the 20th century were used as cover for heroin refineries.

Across the Strait of Messina separating Sicily from Calabria the citron, or citrus medica, with its thick, golden-yellow skin and extraordinary perfume, is one of Calabria’s two unique crops. Its variety Cedro liscio di Diamante has a crucial significance for Lubavitcher Judaism and witnessing a citron harvest attended by Jewish merchants Attlee reflects on the power of the citron to influence human behaviour.

Her account of this and other gatherings creates a sense of magic among the fruit trees. Also there is her study of bergamot, Citrus bergamia, a cross between a lemon tree and a sour orange grown on a narrow slice of the Tyrrhenian coast at the very edge of Calabria. Here the produce is the most valuable citrus fruit in the world. While the bergamot has important antiseptic and antibacterial properties, its great economic value lies in its essential oil, used as the fixing agent in the perfume industry.

Giovanni Maria Farina was an Italian perfumier who moved to Germany and living in Cologne in 1703, used bergamot oil imported from Sicily for a new perfume: Eau de Cologne. Farina Eau de Cologne still has what Attlee describes as “the sunny, optimistic top note that bergamot oil brought … a few drops on my wrist filled the room with bright scent.”

There is another way of enjoying bergamot oil: Earl Grey tea is a blend of dark China tea infused with bergamot oil or peel — and tastes best with, of all things, a slice of lemon.

This domestic reminder evokes marmalade, a name derived from the Portuguese marmelo, or quince. In Italy ‘marmalatta’ is a general description for all kinds of jam with the fruit identified separately.

A Spanish ship sheltering in Dundee in the 1700s unloaded its cargo of oranges from Seville, and as these were too bitter for sale a Mrs. Keiller used them instead of her usual quinces for marmalade — very profitably as it turned out. Three centuries later the organic citrus estate at San Giuliano in Sicily was the home of the late Fiamma Ferragamo, famous as the principal designer for Ferragamo shoes; her daughter Giulia has maintained Fiamma’s exports of hand-made single-fruit San Giuliano marmalade using lemons, red grapefruit, sweet, sour or blood oranges, mandarins or tangelos.

Again and again, for those of us who don’t yet know the land where the lemon trees bloom, Helena Attlee makes it wonderfully clear that mandarins, marmalade, Eau de Cologne and Earl Grey Tea are no substitute for the real thing.

* The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and its Citrus Fruit is the BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, from April 21.

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