Lyrical about Lemons

Grand tour along Italy's citrus groves

Written byBart de Vries


When you’re lazing on a sun bed at the beach or hanging out in your lounge chair at the pool this summer (or next), Helena Attlee’s book about the history of citrus might be the perfect holiday read on food & travel. It not only teaches you how to appreciate the astringency of a lemon, it also takes you along on a grand tour of Italy. Your visit to the local supermarket will suddenly become more interesting when you recognize a sfusato rather than a lemon.

Ms. Attlee has a vivid way of writing, which draws you in and keeps you there. She has a great ability to visualize what she sees: a generous green lap suspended between the two broad knees of Mount Grifone, to describe the fertile area around Palermo. She is even better in making you smell what she smells – for example when she evocates the changing perfumes of a chinotto, an acidic citrus that gives Campari its specific flavor: … a blast of incense, a scent that is spicy and redolent of the cool, empty space of a vast cathedral. … sharp citrus notes… softening, becoming warmer and more floral as the sweetness of the chinotto flower breaks through.

The title of the book refers to a poem by Goethe (“Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn?”) whom she regularly quotes. Her cross-references to writers, (others are Voltaire, de Maupassant and D.H. Lawrence), scientists like Linnaeus and painters such as Bloemaert and Monet, make you realize what a land of enchantment Italy has always been. The quotations make the book scholarly, but it remains nonetheless utterly readable.

As an expert on Italian gardens, Ms. Attlee picked up an interest in citrus trees, which in Renaissance Italy were predominantly kept as a decorative species. Because they are easy to cross-pollinate, all sorts of hybrids came into existence, some with gruesome shapes and forms, that made collecting them a fascinating and fashionable pastime for the rich. Did you know none of the citruses are indigenous to Europe? The mandarin, not surprisingly comes from China, the pomelo from Malaysia and the citron from the Indian Himalayas. The orange is nothing less than a cross between a pomelo, not be confused with a grapefruit, and a mandarin. There are an almost infinite number of varieties.

Ms. Attlee’s tour brings you to places as far apart as the shores of Calabria, where the orthodox Lubavitcher Jews buy their spotless cedri liscio di Diamante for their Sukkoth celebration, and to the shores of lake Garda where the ingenious construction of limonaie (winter housing for citrus trees) had a huge impact on the built environment. Meanwhile you get a brief update on the Sicilian mafia – their power stems from the citrus trade -, and the history of Eau de Cologne, which contains bergamot, another citrus.

The book is interlaced with recipes, not too many, so that you can convert your newly acquired knowledge into delectable dishes after you come back from the beach or the supermarket. And while you are stirring the pots or grating a lemon rind, you may want to listen to some of the music set to Goethe’s famous poem.

Recommended listening:

Hugo Wolf, Arleen Auger / Irwin Gage:
Schumann, Dawn Upshaw / Richard Goode:
Schubert, Janet Baker / Gerald Moore:


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