Since Molly and Emiko warmly suggested to read The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and its Citrus Fruit, written by Helena Attlee, garden writer specialized in the cultural history of Italian gardens, I started noticing citruses everywhere. Beautiful leafy lemons are staring at me from the farmers’ market stalls, glistening jars of British marmalade are lined on the shelves of quaint little shops, blood and blond oranges are pressed in front of my eyes in every bar and I finally find unusual and rare citruses at the local market.
The Land Where Lemons Grow is a charming excursion through history and through Italian citrus groves, from the giardini of the Medici’s villas, to the lemon terrazze in Amalfi or Lake of Garda limonaie up until the Conca d’Oro in Sicily. It explores the diffusion of lemons, oranges, bitter oranges, blood oranges, citrons and bergamots in the Italian life, culture and culinary heritage. Reading those pages you are intoxicated by the smell of zagara and by Helena Attlee’s sensual prose. It is an informative and evocative book.
But let’s get back to my rare findings at the market: a few weeks ago I spotted bergamots. Real bergamots from Calabria. I was immediately hooked. Bergamots are defined as green gold, the most valuable citrus in the world.
Bergamots are a natural cross-pollination between a lemon tree and a sour orange that occurred for the first time ever in Calabria in the mid seventeenth century. The bergamot tree grows successfully just in a thin strip of land that runs for 75 kilometers from Villa San Giovanni on the Tyrrenian coast to Brancaleone on the Ionian sea. It produces its unrivaled fruits thanks to extreme weather conditions, which grant a bergamot rich in essential oils.
I was immediately captured by Helena Attlee’s description of bergamots, real free spirits, so I’m copying her imaginative prose here, for your pleasure and mine.
Anything goes in a bergamot grove. Trees are pruned very lightly only once a year and some of them grow to over four meters high. They are carefree, liberated, untidy and entirely organic, the hippies of the citrus world. It is the essential oil stored in the pores just beneath the surface of the skin that makes bergamot so valuable.
It has been the precious essential oil that made bergamots famous all over the world as a fixing agent in the perfume industry. Just imagine, the celebrated Eau de Cologne was invented by an Italian perfumer, Giovanni Maria Farina, who perfected the art of distilling the alcohol in Germany in the XVIII century. He describes his new bergamot-based perfume as the scent of a spring morning in Italy, of a mountain narcissus and citrus blossom after rain.
Now I want to leave behind every other perfume and douse myself in Eau de Cologne.
Since the XIX century bergamot oil found a new use: it gave its distinct aroma and flavour to Earl Grey, probably the most famous of English teas, made from a blend of dark China teas infused with the bergamot oil and peel. My dear friend Regula is a fond estimator, she cannot begin her day without a steaming cup of Earl Grey tea. This is yet another reason to love bergamots, as their smell reminds me of our breakfasts together and all the related chats over a cup of tea.
In the XIX century bergamots were used in the perfume art and for making Earl Grey tea, but as soon as scientists and doctors discovered its powerful antiseptic and antibacterial qualities, the bergamot oil acquired a key role in hospitals as disinfectant.
Bergamot is so acid in its natural form that cooks ignored it for centuries. It was even categorized as a toxic substance. Recently producers of quality bergamots from Calabria fought to remove this wrong toxic label and nowadays they are developing new interesting products to promote other uses of bergamot, which are not just related to extracting its precious essential oil: now you can find also bergamot bases marmalades, cordials and syrups.
I decided to begin my exploration with the easiest preparation, a bright yellow bergamot marmalade, where the citrus note is persistent and fresh, but the unmistakable incense-like flavour of bergamot lingers well after your first spoon. I was inspired by David Leibovitz’s bergamot marmalade, but played a bit with the amount of sugar and time of cooking.
It’s a precious and unique marmalade for breakfast which pairs naturally with a cup of Earl Grey and a few slices of toasted bread. Do not forget the butter, which mellows the intense bergamot flavour.
- 1,8 kg 4 lb of bergamots
- 1,3 kg 6 1/2 cups - 2,87 lb of sugar
- 500 ml 2,2 cups - 16,9 fl oz of water
- Wash thoroughly the bergamots under running water and dry them.
- Quarter each bergamot, trim off the stem ends and remove the seeds. Keep them aside.
- Slice as thinly as possible the bergamots and collect flesh, rind and juice in a big pot filled with water. Bring to a boil and let boil for five minutes, then drain well.
- Return the bergamots to the pot, add the sugar, por in the water and stir thoroughly. Collect seed and pith in a cheesecloth, form a little sachet, close it with a string and add it to the pot. Seeds contain naturally pectin, which will help you get a thick marmalade.
- Bring the citrus fruit to a boil on medium heat, then lower the temperature to the minimum and simmer gently for about two hours. Check the doneness of the marmalade with a little saucer. Pour a drop of marmalade onto a cold saucer from the fridge. If it solidifies and does not slip away when you tilt the saucer, it is ready to be put into sterilized jars.
Have you ever tried bergamots? Could you recognize their unmistakable aroma? Here’s some interesting readings for you if you, like me, have fallen in love with this rare citrus fruit.
- A great review of Helena Attlee’s book on the Telegraph by Anna del Conte. Attlee, who knows and loves Italy and the Italians, takes the reader through the country’s scented gardens with her sharp descriptions, pertinent stories and quotes and intriguing recipes. I was there with her.
- David Leibovitz’s bergamot marmalade, inspired by The Independent Bergamot and cedro marmalade by Skye Gyngell.
- Yet another bergamot marmalade, this time by Bois the Jasmin, a blog where Victoria shares her love for perfume, food and other sensory pleasures. I just discovered her blog and I am already immensely in love with her unique approach.
- Emiko has already written something about her love for Helena Attlee’s book and her discovery of citron at the market. She also made a cedrata, a citron drink, for Food52.