The Kitchen Thinker: Italy, a paradise of citrus

Date:26-04-2014 07:58:40 read:1

The Kitchen Thinker: Italy, a paradise of citrus

Italian citrus, from the giant yellow citron to the dark-red Moro blood orange, is full of suprises

'There are pink grapefruits and green limes; golden citrons and sweet lemons; navel oranges and multiple varieties of mandarin' Photo: RUTHLEWISILLUSTRATIONS.COM

When the Danish fairytale writer Hans Christian Andersen travelled to Italy in 1833 he was dazzled by the orange and lemon trees. “How unfairly we are treated in the north,” he wrote. “Here, here is paradise.”

A paradise of citrus is how I always think of Italy too: a place where ice-cold limoncello is sipped from tiny glasses on piazzas, and everything from ricotta cake to osso bucco is enlivened with zest. What a joy, therefore, to read Helena Attlee’s The Land Where Lemons Grow (Particular Books, £20), which tells the story of Italy through its citrus fruit.

For ages the only citrus in Italy – or indeed in Europe – was the citron, or cedro, which was brought to Calabria by the Jews around AD70. It would be another 800 years before sour lemons arrived with the Arab invasion of Sicily. Claudia Roden makes great use of lemons in The Food of Italy (reissued in an expanded edition by Square Peg, £25), notably in a tart and creamy lemon risotto from Piedmont.

But the citron is something else – a truly outlandish object. Ancient Romans used these giant yellow fruits as room fresheners. In Britain we mostly encounter them in the form of candied peel, but fresh citrons are extraordinary, like gigantic malformed lemons but with a scent that is, as Attlee says, like “spice and sweet violets”. They are still grown in Calabria, and the finest, largest specimens can sell for up to £250. Attlee suggests slicing the pith into thin strips to make a salad with parsley and olives. The great surprise is that the pith is the sweetest part.

Italian citrus is full of surprises. Attlee, a gardening expert who regularly leads tours to Italy, sees and tastes many weird fruits on her travels. In Tuscan gardens there are fingered lemons “like yellow hands”, a throwback to the Renaissance fashion among rich families for collecting rare mutations of citrus trees. The mutations continue in modern Italian citrus farms. Attlee visits a farm in Liguria where there are pink grapefruits and green limes; golden citrons and sweet lemons; navel oranges and multiple varieties of mandarin. Sometimes the fruits cross-pollinate, creating still more varieties. The farmer shows her a spherical lemon that “got too friendly with an orange”.

By Italian standards, the range of citrus for sale in Britain is paltry. I get excited about buying blood oranges from Italy every February – and they are hard enough to track down – but in Sicily the Arancia rossa comes in many varieties. As well as the dark-red Moro and Sanguinello, there is the Tarocco, sometimes called “half-blood”, whose marbled flesh, for Attlee, makes all other oranges seem “cloyingly sweet”. She likes slicing it wafer-thin with fennel.

Despite the depth of Italian citrus mania, it’s not easy making a living growing oranges. The Mafia used to run the industry but moved on when profits dwindled. Sicilian farmers now suffer at the hands of supermarkets that buy cheap and sell at a 500 per cent mark-up. “Watch out for China,” warns a Sicilian journalist who fears that Italian oranges will soon be unable to compete with Asian imports. Let’s hope this is wrong. It would be sad indeed if Italy stopped being the land where lemons grow.

Follow @StellaMagazine

    Ever For Health Copy Rights 2013