“I have to have this book,” I told Ruth Ann. “You know how much I love all things lemon. And Sicily.”
This spring Magellan and I were in Sidney on Vancouver Island, which Ruth Ann says is the independent bookstore capital of Canada. From our day of investigating the town with Ruth Ann and Bruce, I see why.
Though I was hoping Ruth Ann would encourage me to buy The Land Where Lemons Grow, we both knew that it should return to its prominent shelf in Tanner’s Books. That a Sunday Times bestseller, BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week and Guild of Food Writers Food Book of the Year would certainly be available at the VPL. That $22 could be better spent elsewhere.
Two days later, this book of “tangy trivia, pithy charm and invigorating zest” was ready for pickup at the library. And oh my, has it sharpened my taste for the fruit it celebrates. (But caused me to part with far more than $22!)
The Land Where Lemons Grow was written by Helena Attlee, an author of books about gardens who has worked in Italy for forty years.
Like a chef creating a lemon souffle, Helena tells the bittersweet story of citrus. Her writing folds anecdotal lightness, art, poetry and humour into a rich base of horticulture and history.
Of the sixteen stories in her book, one of my favourites is “A Golden Bowl of Bitter Lemons: Extraordinary wealth on Sicily’s west coast.”
After America dropped the excise duty on Italian citrus, nineteen million kilos of fruit crossed the ocean to New York—two-thirds of it lemons. By 1860, Sicilian citrus production was earning more money than any other agricultural activity—in all of Europe.
Sicily’s land requires considerable work and large investments to make it productive. Citrus trees take three years to bear fruit another five to produce a profitable crop. But what a profit. A labourer was paid abut 10 lire for the time it took him to pick a kilo of mandarini tardive that fetched 1,200 lire! Naturally, landowners were protective of their citrus orchards. They built three-metre-high walls and hired workers to guard their fruit.
When Sicily became part of the new kingdom of Italy, its laws of land ownership changed. Instead of land being transferred from father to son, it was bought by wealthy aristocrats. In the citrus orchards of Conca d’Oro the speculation, extortion, intimidation and protection rackets that characterize Mafia activity were first practiced and perfected by these aristocrats.
The Mafia, the richest landowners, offered to protect their neighbours’ interests, extracting a fee for supplying labourers, armed guards and irrigation facilities. Before long, the Mafia controlled every aspect of citrus production from planting to price-fixing. If you didn’t comply with their terms, your fruit trees were hacked down, your water system vandalized and your staff murdered.
This continued until just after WW II when the Mafia turned to construction. Uncontrolled development with higher profits. (Some would say they’ve never left that seedy business.)
By the end of the 1960s, Sicilian citrus was being replaced with cheaper fruit from South Africa, Spain and Israel where production was mechanized, or from Tunisia and Morocco where labour was less costly. Conca d’Oro’s scented landscape of orchard green was bulldozed and turned into concrete blocks of lifeless grey.
Helena begins her book with a sweeter side of citrus. She mentions Eugenio Montale, one of the most important Italian poets of the twentieth century. Here’s a translation of the first and last verse of his poem “I Limoni:“
Listen to what I’m telling you: the poets awarded laurels
only appear to move among plants
whose names are rarely used – box, privet or acanthus –
but that’s not me, I love the roads that end up in grassy
ditches where in half-dried puddles
a handful of emaciated eels:
the lanes that follow riverbanks,
descend through tufted watercanes
and open out into orchards, groves of lemon trees.
But the illusion dies and time draws us back
to noisy cities where the blue sky only appears
in fragments, high up, between the roofs.
The rain tires out the earth from now onwards;
the tedium of winter weighs on houses,
light becomes miserly – the soul embittered.
Then one day through a door left ajar
in among the trees in a courtyard
we glimpse the yellow of lemons;
and the ice in our hearts melts,
and in our chests
from their golden trumpets of sunlight.
In the book’s first story, Helena also tells us about “citrus art,” like that of Bartolomeo Bimbi. Cosimo III de’ Medici commissioned him to glorify his fruitful territory by painting every kind of citrus in Tuscany, a demand that keep Bartolomeo at his easel for sixteen years.
Who doesn’t love a good marmalade? On toast with peanut butter. Spread on a slice of cheddar…
Before reading Helena’s story “A Sicilian Marmalade Kitchen,” my favourite marmalades were (1) Le Meadow’s Bitter Sweet Morning, winner of two Silvers at the World’s Original Marmalade Awards in Dalemain Cumbria), made in BC from grapefruit and smoked sea salt, and (2) Yakami Orchard’s Yuzu Marmalade from Japan. Helena tells us about the San Giuliano family, who under the watchful eye of Mount Etna, have been making marmalade since the nineteenth century. San Giuliano’s marmalade took a sweet turn toward fame in the 1980s when Fiamma Ferragamo, wife of Marchese Giuseppe paterno Castello di San Giuliano, was leafing through old family cookbooks and discovered recipes for marmalade made from lemons, tangelos, clementines, mandarins… Helena visited their professional kitchen on the edge of their citrus groves where their small-batch production happens:
All of the fruit has to be washed, dried and cut up by hand. It is all organic and it is cooked without colouring, preservatives or added perfection. When it comes to deciding whether the marmalades are ready, the women do so by instinct. ‘You can buy them all the thermometers you want,’ Giulia says, but they’ll never use them.’
Where could I get my hands on a jar of San Giuliano marmalade?
Remember our trip to Seattle to see Bill Frisell? DeLaurenti at Pike Market sells six varieties of San Giuliano marmalades: Bitter Orange, Clementine, Lemon, Mandarin, Red Grapefruit, and Orange.
After reading about the health benefits of blood oranges in Helena’s story “Oranges Soaked in Sunsets: Blood oranges in the shadow of Mount Etna” (in which she describes their flesh as “the colour of crushed velvet”), I made another purchase at DeLaurenti’s, a quart of blood orange juice.
Anthocyanins in blood oranges have proved to lower the risk of heart disease and stroke, improve circulation, increase insulin production and provide protection from certain kinds of cancer. I’ve taken to drinking a Garibaldi: Campari, freshly squeezed blood orange juice and ice. My heart feels better with every sip.
(On the subject of recipes, La Naranjiya is my favourite of those Helena included in her book. Coarsely dice lamb and lightly cook it with chopped leeks, onions and carrots plus cumin, coriander seeds, cinnamon stick, ginger, pepper, ground mastic and a few sprigs of mint. Shape the mixture into meatballs and simmer until cooked in the strained juice of three sour oranges.)
“Green Gold” is another of my favourite stories in Helena’s book. It’s about bergamot—the most valuable citrus in the world because of its essential oil, the flavour ingredient in Earl Grey tea.
Bergamot thrives on terraces cut into volcanic cliffs on the coastline of Reggio Calabria at the “second toe of the boot of Italy.” Growing carefree, liberated, untidy and entirely organic, Helena calls bergamot “the hippies of the citrus world.”
Giovanni Maria Farina, who learned to distill bergamot ‘s essential oil at the age of twenty-three, used it to develop Eau de Cologne, a famous fragrance worn by Napoleon, Mozart and King Louis XV that’s still for sale today. It’s described as the scent of a spring morning in Italy, mountain narcissus and citrus blossoms after rain.
Bergamot has an astonishing 368 separate chemical components. Its antiseptic and antibacterial qualities are used to combat superbugs, prevent post-op infections, build antivirals in medicines and create disinfectants. Bergamot is an ingredient in treatments for cold sores, acne, eczema, dandruff, chickenpox…It’s also in tobacco; is that where some cigarettes get their incense flavour?
My (new) favourite bergamot application is Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto, a liqueur made from bergamot peel, Cedro lemons, chamomile, lavender, gentian, yellow roses and Melissa balm. Unavailable in Vancouver, Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto can be found in Seattle at Downtown Spirits, where Magellan and I bought their last bottle. For Easter dinner, I added Bergamotto into my recipe for Lemon Sorbet and poured a little more on top at serving time. Known in the mid-nineteenth century as the “drink of kings,” I’m ready to mix it with equal parts of gin and vermouth for a white Negroni this summer.
Reading a good book…
What is the extraordinary pleasure that we derive from this pastime? Why do we forget everything for it, feel by it transported, enlarged, enslaved, freed, impassioned, enlivened, soothed, drugged, delighted, distressed, entertained, sharpened in wits, enobled in soul, winged in imagination, gratified in humour, stirred to pity, rage, love, rapture, enthusiasm, creation, zeal for learning, infinite zest and curiosity for life? I do not know, nor anyone.” Rose Macaulay from her book Personal Pleasures.
See what browsing in second-hand bookshops when you travel can lead to?
Attlee, Helena. The Land Where Lemons Grow. The Story of Italy and Its Citrus Fruit. London: Particular Books, 2014. Here’s Helena’s website.
Shaun Bythell, Shaun. The Diary of a Bookseller. London: Profile Books, 2017. At the centre of Shaun’s misanthropic dispatches from the Wigtown Bookshop he’s run for more than twenty years are nuggets of sweetness, likes caramels wrapped in salt ‘n vinegar chips with a joke in every bag. I’ve also read Confessions of a Bookseller and Seven Kinds of People you Find in Bookshops and am licking my lips anticipating his fourth book, Remainders of the Day: A Bookshop Diary, to be released November 2022.
The Bookshop, the largest second-hand bookshop in Scotland.
DeLaurenti’s in Seattle.
Latham, Martin. The Bookseller’s Tale. London: Particular Books, 2020. Perhaps the bets book I have read this year, it’s “Part cultural history, part literary love-letter and part reluctant memoir, this is the consoling, transforming tale of one bookseller and many, many books.”
Macaulay, Rose. Personal Pleasures. London: Gollancz Ltd., 1935.