I’ve always been a fan of lemons as a flavour: as a child my favourite ‘treat’ drink was Schweppes Bitter Lemon, which always seemed mouth-puckeirngly sour at the time, but now seems quite sweet to my adult palate! But in the last month I’ve read two books about lemons, and have become fascinated with everything about them – their origins, scent, how they grow, and what to make with them in the kitchen. Here follows the beginning of my journey of discovery…
First, I got sick and had to spend a few days in bed feeling sorry for myself, so the husband, bought me a book to cheer me up and distract me from my immune system’s struggles. This was Driving Over Lemons – An Optimist in Andalucia. Well, they do say you should take in plenty of citrus fruits when you’re ill, right? The author, Chris Stewart, was originally the drummer in Genesis, but that means almost nothing to me and indeed I didn’t realise that was the case until I’d finished the book and was reading the author interview hidden away at the back. The book chronicles Chris’s decision to move with his family to Spain, buying a derelict farm called El Valero and making a new life for themselves in the Andalucian hills. It’s basically A Year in Provence, but further south and set over a longer period. Jolly, gently humourous and the perfect antidote to modern city living, it transports you rural Spain in a miasma of joie de vivre – but the lemons, though omnipresent and heavily scented, provide only the backdrop to the main narrative of family life.
A few days after finishing Driving over Lemons and feeling fully recovered, the husband and I found ourselves in Sardinia. Moving house and starting a new job which required working throughout August meant that this was our first holiday this year, so it was magical to be away somewhere beautiful and sunny for two whole weeks. We stayed in Bosa, a Phoenician hill town, for 9 days, then had 4 days in an agriturismo not far from the coast. We’d been to Sardinia for our honeymoon last year, and had such a marvellous time that we couldn’t wait to go back – it didn’t disappoint!
As ever when on holiday, I had brought plenty of reading material, but chief among them was Helena Attlee’s The Land Where Lemons Grow. I’d bought this book for the husband for his birthday back in June, lured in by the beauty of the cover and happy memories of our honeymoon, and he’d raved about it all the way through, sharing so many delicious snippets of citrussy information that I already felt quite familiar with it by the time it came to read it for myself. I’d been deliberately resisting starting it before the holiday, as when I travel I like to try to read books set in the places I’m visiting, to more thoroughly experience the place not only geographically, but culturally and historically too. Technically, the book focusses mostly on Sicily and mainland Italy, but Sardinia’s just a stone’s throw further into the Mediterranean – so close enough!
Attlee is a garden expert by trade, leading tours and writing books on Italian gardens. She obviously adores plants in all their splendid variety, but it is the citrus family which has really captured her imagination. Although the title makes specific reference to just one member of this family, Attlee’s book covers the whole gamut of the genus, from the three original citrus fruits (pomelo, citron and mandarin) to hundreds of different sub-species.
From the Medici to the Mafia, we discover that citrus lies at the heart of Italy’s economy and gastronomy since at least the 6th century. I was also introduced to several fruits I’d never even heard of: the chinotto, a small bitter citrus used to flavour drinks and sweets; and bergamot, the name of which I knew but which I had believed, rather erroneously, to be a herb. It is in fact an inedible citrus fruit whose powerfully fragrant essential oils form the basis for Eau De Cologne, and have done ever since the perfume was first invented by Johann Maria Farina in 1709.
Attlee’s writing is pitch-perfect, balancing the academic with the anecdotal to create a whole which is so fascinating that when I’d finished, I immediately turned back to the first page and started reading it again. Although she is narrating the tale of citrus development throughout history, the book’s form is non-linear and moves effortlessly between place and time – in some books this jars or can confuse the less expert reader (such as myself), but in Attlee’s hands these connected stories simply weave in and out of each other to create a truly rich and vibrant text.
The book also inspired us to seek out the more unusual citrus fruits we’d read about – and we found both chinotto, in the form of a drink made by San Pellegrino, and citron – again as a drink (see photo above.) We also saw a pomelo in the supermarket, but it was so huge that we stopped short of buying it as we didn’t fancy trying to chop it up with our tiny kit knife. But we did try Attlee’s delicious recipe for pasta with orange and lemon – very unusual but well worth a taste.
The Land Where Lemons Grow is a definite contender for my favourite book of the year – if you’ve read it, let me know what you think, and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for? Hie thee to a (good independent) bookshop!