“Do you know the land where the lemons bloom / In the dark foliage the golden oranges glow / A gentle wind blows from the blue sky / The myrtle is still and the laurel stands tall? / Do you know it well?” wrote Johann Wolfgang von Goethe more than two hundred years ago, after he had been enchanted by the sight of the lemon groves on the Amalfi Coast.
Naturally! We know it well, this beautiful country, which this summer will again be visited by millions of foreign tourists who succumb to the same fascination as the German poet prince. But do we and do they also know the lemon?
The answer is usually: no. “When we buy lemons, we grab a net from the supermarket shelf without thinking twice and that’s that. We don’t know anything about the lemon, although it is an icon of the Mediterranean and more specifically of Italy,” says Manuela Soressi, gastro-journalist for the Italian business newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore.
She has been working with the yellow fruit for years – “out of curiosity and passion” – and is now using her knowledge in a book entitled “Il Paese dei limoni – Storie, profumi e sapori del re degli agrumi italiani” (The Land of Lemons – Tales, Scents and Tastes of the Queen of Italian Citrus).
This is the first book of its kind in Italy – and that alone says a lot about the ignorance with which lemons are treated even in what was once the world’s most important producing country.
The ignorance begins with the origin of the lemon: it comes from the Far East and was brought to Sicily by the Arabs in the tenth century AD. The Arabic name of the fruit is “li mum”, and it wasn’t far to the Italian name “limone”.
The fruit was initially used by the Sicilians for centuries as an ornamental plant – until it was discovered that the lemon can be used successfully against the vitamin C deficiency disease scurvy, a disease feared by sailors at the time. Thanks to its healing properties, the lemon quickly became the “gold of the south”: the prices were astronomical, the lemon was a luxury product. An unprecedented cultivation battle ensued, encouraged by the Bourbon rulers of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies with generous subsidies for new plantations.
The lemon saved the kingdom from national bankruptcy, made the maritime republic of Amalfi rich and in Sicily encouraged the emergence of the mafia, which was also involved in the extremely profitable lemon business. Until the beginning of the 20th century, Italy practically had a monopoly in lemon production, the fruits were exported all over the world, the share of the world market was over 90 percent.
A decisive factor in the boom in the “medicinal plant” was that the lemon was increasingly being discovered as a foodstuff – above all in the form of fruit juice, ice cream and as a liqueur such as limoncello, which is extremely popular in Italy. The highly fragrant, oily essence of its peel is also used in the cosmetics and perfume industries. And it is almost always fresh: the lemon is the only citrus fruit that blooms several times a year and bears both ripe and unripe fruit at the same time. It can therefore be harvested practically all year round.
In the first half of the 20th century, however, the large and lucrative lemon party in Italy came to a rather abrupt end. Other Mediterranean countries, above all Spain, discovered the market and produce significantly cheaper. Later Turkey, Argentina and other South American countries followed.
In Sicily, where around 90 percent of Italian lemons were produced, 40 percent of the area under cultivation disappeared in just a few decades. And the decline continues: “Since 1995, lemon production has fallen from 700,000 tons to just over 300,000 tons a year,” reports the Coldiretti farmers’ association.
And what is almost worse for the producers: in the same period, imports have increased from 18,000 tons to over 100,000 tons. “The sad truth is that today 27 lemons out of every 100 consumed in Italy come from abroad,” writes Coldiretti.
Author Manuela Soressi consoles herself with the fact that Italy is still the European champion in one respect: The country has seven lemon varieties that are protected with the EU seal of quality IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) and are produced according to strict regulations.
This is by no means irrelevant for consumers: “Most supermarket lemons are waxed – for visual reasons, so that they have a nice shine, but also for better preservation. To do this, the wax is often mixed with fungicides or other chemicals,” emphasizes the gastro journalist.
Actually, according to an EU regulation, it should be noted on the packaging of the lemons whether they have been treated – because in this case the peel should not be consumed (e.g. in drinks or for the preparation of ice cream, cakes and other desserts). However, this rule is violated all too often.
This danger does not exist with Italian IGP lemons: subsequent treatment with wax or other substances is prohibited. “Consumers receive a high-quality natural product that is often organically grown, even if it is not officially declared as organic,” says Soressi.
She calls the IGP lemons the “fantastic seven”: Above all is the Amalfi lemon, the most aromatic of all, which was also used for Harry and Meghan’s wedding cake. There is also the “Limone Verdello” from the slopes of Mount Etna – a green lemon that is surprisingly the least acidic of all.
The IGP seal also carries the “Femminella” from the Gargano (the oldest variety in Italy), the lemon from Syracuse (“Limone di Siracusa” IGP), the “Interdonato” from Messina, the Sorrento lemon and the “Rocca Imperiale” , named after the growing area near the Calabrian city of Cosenza.
“The seven IGT lemons offer a wealth of flavors, each with its own character. It’s about time that consumers, two hundred years after Goethe, gave this fruit the value and recognition it deserves,” Soressi stresses.