THE ZESTY FLAVOUR OF SOUTHERN ITALY February 27, 2020
During my travels around southern Italy last summer, I discovered the rich abundance of this exceptional region, and the generous, authentic inhabitants who have lived there for generations. My biggest realisation was that Italy is one of the best producers of citrus in the world (and also the second largest European orange producer after Spain).
Sicily and Calabria are the main citrus producing areas. Tarocco, Moro, Sanguinello, Naveline, and Valencia are the leading orange varieties grown in the country. Moreover, Ippolito and Meli cultivars are gaining popularity. All these citrus names sound like inspiring poetry to my ears…
My journey began on the largest Mediterranean island located off the toe of the boot of Italy: amazing Sicily!
On my first day, I was curious to see people sitting in a café eating granita and brioche for breakfast. I learnt that the traditional way to combat the island’s scorching summer heat is a hearty breakfast of ice-cold lemon granita and a warm brioche straight from the oven. The cold and hot combination gives your senses a kick start. I was keen to try it out. The next morning I sat in a small café on the village’s main square to sample this famous semi-frozen treat often called “Granita Siciliana” because, as you’ve probably guessed, it’s a Sicilian speciality. Its irresistible fizzy cold taste appeals to young and old alike, especially when it’s made with intensely flavoured sun-ripened Sicilian lemons. The characteristic scent of Sicilian lemon is both fizzy and sweet. Surrounded by the busy clamour of local inhabitants sharing a picturesque early-morning moment, this traditional breakfast is an unforgettable experience!
Nine out of ten lemons produced in Italy actually come from Sicily. These sparkling fruits with a sunny-yellow peel are handpicked, as they mature through the year. The climate means a long growing season and the gathering of lemons takes place over three distinct periods. First is the autumn harvest or “primo fiore,” followed by the cultivation of the “bianchetti” in spring, and the “verdelli” between the summer months of June and July.
Lemon essential oil is one of the most easily recognised oils because of its refreshing, energising, and uplifting scent. It is also very much appreciated in aromatherapy thanks to its health benefits. It can be attributed to its stimulating, calming, astringent, detoxifying, antiseptic, and disinfectant properties.
Over the next few days, I discovered Palagonia at the foot of Mount Etna, near the pretty harbour town of Catania, located on the island’s east coast. Citrus fruits like Tarocco and Moro oranges and Ciaculli mandarins have been cultivated for centuries on these plains. Along with their remarkable flavour, the skins of these fruits bear small, dark marks caused by the cinders spewing from the still-active volcano. The marks cause no risk to the fruit, but are the signature of this exceptional terroir.
In the area, the sweet citrus fruits are harvested before the fruit is fully ripe. All citrus peels are covered with small pockets secreting essential oil, emitting a pleasant, zesty scent when the fruits are peeled. Even the slightest pressure releases a pleasant, fruity, lemony fragrance. The same principle is applied to extract the essential oil: the pericarp is cold-pressed.
Used in aromatherapy applications, orange essential oil is known to have a pleasant scent that has a cheerful and uplifting, yet simultaneously relaxing, and calming effect, as it helps reduce the pulse rate. For this reason, it is believed to be beneficial for vaporising in any room, especially when experiencing anxiety, sadness, anger, hypertension, frustration, and other negative moods.
At lunchtime I sat at a bistro table on a shady terrace on the Piazza del Duomo. I took my time to enjoy a typical local recipe: fillet of cod with Ciaculli mandarins served with rice. A delicious dish, in which the soft flesh of fish caught that very morning by the village fishermen, was subtly enhanced by the tangy sweetness of sun-gorged Ciaculli mandarins. Besides its popular taste, the mandarin also boasts of recognised therapeutic and sedative properties that promote mental and physical relaxation. The essential oil obtained by cold pressure is slightly bitter and tangy, with an uplifting green facet.
No visit to Sicily is complete without a trip to Syracuse, a city located on the Ionian coast and famous for its ancient ruins. The small sea-facing orchards here produce the most delicious lemons. The Mediterranean climate and soil, which combine cool mountain air with the salty air of the sea, make it an ideal place to grow citrus, known here as ‘the fruits of the sun’.
Along with the mild climate, the warm sea breeze also plays a role in citrus growing. In lemon orchards close to the Mediterranean, the trees closest to the sea are ready for picking earlier than those located further inland.
I left Sicily for the Amalfi Coast where lemons, citrons, and bergamots are produced in small quantities, cultivated in magnificent terraced orchards overlooking the sea. On the sheer slopes of Amalfi and Sorrento, many citrus orchards are still only accessible by steep steps used by growers to transport the fruit on their shoulders. This is the home of the lemon liqueurs, Limone di Amalfi and Limone di Sorrento, popular all over the world.
In the evening, I decided to saunter down Amalfi’s winding streets. My evening went on until late, sipping from a glass of delicious Limoncello in the charming company of Massimiliano, who grows lemons on the Amalfi hills with his brother Angelo.
…Calabria in southern Italy, which is where one of the most precious citrus fruits in the world is grown. As Massimiliano explained, the region’s bergamot is locally referred to as “green gold”.
The next day, Massimiliano accompanied me to Calabria in southern Italy, which is where one of the most precious citrus fruits in the world is grown. As Massimiliano explained, the region’s bergamot is locally referred to as “green gold”. The bergamot citrus is a cross between bitter orange and lime, and is cultivated all along the Ionian and Tyrrhenian coasts. The Calabrian speciality looks like a greenish orange fruit.
Unlike other citrus fruits, bergamot is grown only for its essential oil. The Italian regions of Calabria and Sicily are the largest producers in the world. When in bloom, the bergamot is covered with a multitude of fragrant, white flowers. The fruits ripen between December and March. The scent of the oil extracted from bergamots is, at once, zesty, tangy, effervescent, floral, and sweet. This essence is widely used in perfumery as a head note in Eau de Cologne, and in chypre, fougère, and oriental accords. It is present in famous perfumes like ‘Eau Sauvage’ by Dior and ‘Shalimar’ by Guerlain.
In aromatherapy, bergamot essential oil, with its clean and refreshing citrus fragrance, is considered an effective antidote against depression, anxiety, urinary tract infections, and nervous indigestion. The oil has a balancing and toning effect on the nervous system, which makes it effective against psychological disturbances as well as painful spasms. Bergamot is also used in the treatment of all kinds of infections owing to its strong antiseptic properties. From a fragrance point of view, the citrus family includes all citrus notes characteristic of citrus peel (such as bergamot, lemon, orange, tangerine and grapefruit). Using highly specific techniques, citrus essential oils are extracted from the fruits to provide the base composition for precious, refined fragrances. These notes are fresh, light, and very volatile. They are used as top notes, creating a pleasant opening for perfume compositions.
Orange blossom is a delight, not just because of the elegance of the flowers, but also for their intense perfume. The tiny orange blossoms have five white petals and in the language of flowers represent purity and fertility. Which explains why the flowers are often used in floral decorations at wedding celebrations to bode the newly married couple well.
By the end of my trip, I was under the spell of the region’s magical historic gardens, planted with magnificent orange trees that thrive in the mild Mediterranean climate. A treat for the eyes, and the nose.
The best memory of my journey to Italy remains the scent of the exceptional citrus fruits: orange, mandarin, lemon, bergamot orange, citron. Their essential oils harbour all the fragrance of these fruits of the sun, evoking the generosity and authenticity of this beautiful region, and combining all the senses to produce an intense feeling of happiness and wellbeing.
Nathalie Sahut, Fragrance Influence, France