Lemon farming at the feet of Mount Etna, Eastern Sicily

Citrus fruits originated in India and the Far East and reached Europe and Italy along with missions, invasions that silently seeds joined almost like clandestines. First to arrive was the citron or cedro that Romans called the Persian lime.

Cedro or Citron, Citrus medica – Cedar tree

It grew in Israel first and became sacred to Hebrews forever. It found its perfect soil in the very golden triangle: the land of coffee, tea, cardamom that is Egypt, Babylon and Judea. It is a big tall tree offering shade and generoud fruits.

Hebrew curiosity: during the Feast of Tabernacles, the Sukkot, Hebrews usually bring fronds of willow, symbol of perfidy resempling the tongue of a snake; of myrth representing the female eye and curiosity; of palm tree representing arrogance; and citron symbol of knowledge. Still today Hebrews from Israel collect these fronds to ship worldwide to their brothers to celebrate their ritual.

In Sicilian patisserie cider is candied. On farmers’ tables cider is eaten as a salad dressed with herrings, mint, olive oil and salt. Its aftertaste perfectly meets extreme taste lovers, cider, in fact, is stronger than lemon to make pinzimonio to dress grilled fish.

Cider has anti-inflammatory and disinfecting effects for the stomach and urinary tract, it can cure colitis and cystitis. It regulates blood pressure. It has a anti-aging and anti-oxidant power. It helps hair growth.

Lemon, Citrus limon – Lemon tree

The golden fruit. Much has been said and written about lemons. I just like to enlighten its essential oils for their beneficial properties for the skin and stomach. Who has not tried at least once in life the famous “canarino”, a tea prepared with boiled lemon skin and laurel leaves that release their oils into the water that can heal any stomachache, balance blood pressure, regulate heart beating, and reduce anxiety.

Orange, Citrus sinensis – Orange tree

Oranges arrived with the Arabs in the 800, but only the bitter variety, the Citrus aurantium. The sweet orange came at the beginning of trade exchanges with Portugueses in 1500, with the purpose of decorating gardens. From gardens to fields was a quick passage that started orange farming.

More than sweet oranges red oranges have reached a bigger popularity for their anti-oxidant power. This power lays in the very red color, which develops thanks to the higher concentration of anthocians and thermal excursions. In fact, here at the feet of Mount Etna, Eastern Sicily, close to the Tyrrhenean sea, red oranges become more red in February when there is snow on the volcano. It seems that the same orange protects herself by ripening the red pigments.

Mandarins, Citrus nobili – Mandarin tree

Curiosity: a little bit calorically-dense, but a good source of group P vitamins that help protecting neuronal and celebral connections and then improve intellectual performance. Amongst minerals mandarins provide bromine that helps sleeping and relaxation.

Three famous hybrids derive from mandarin:

Mandorange by crossing mandarin and orange

Clementine by crossing mandarin and mandorange

Mapo by crossing mandarin and grapefruit

Grapefruit, Citrus paradisi – Grapefruit tree

This is the only citrus not coming from India but Jamaica and The Antilles.

The most important characteristic of grapefruit is its antioxidant power that grows with the color content, the same as oranges. Red grapefruit then, is more antioxidant than pink and yellow grapefruits.

It is a satiety enhancer, very good to know!

It contains tryptophan, a amminoacid that the body does not synthetize by itself. Tryptophan is the precursor of serotonin, which is a mood modalutor, and melatonin a well-known sleep regulator.

They have the flower in common the Citrus blossom, the Zagara flower so delicate to lose the petals at a glance. It is like saying beauty has to be protected from sight too. In fact, its name comes from the Arab Zahrah that means white flower.

Story of a Sicilian family of lemon farmers 

Lemons were the gold of the 70s, the base of the economy of most of the grandfathers of Sicily of my generation. Mine for sure. With the lemon agriculture our fathers became doctors, engineers, travelers, and we were their future. Today’s economy.

Hanging lemons from brown branches that look like veins immersed in a green mass was a privileged view from the terrace of my country house.

They meant work. Work for my grandfather who owned the land, work for the local workers who he respected and monitored all the time, without living the yards or the warehouse for a second from sunrise to sunset. Every time I take a picture of a sunrise I remember my grandparents and my parents going to work. I remember my grandmother preparing food for him and the workers too and when she served it it was noon. The church’s bells were ringing a second after she handed the food out to them.

We are located between Etna and the Ionian sea. We are in Pozzillo, in the province of Catania between Acireale and Taormina. I love small communities and the human relationships in it. The smallest the fightest, like spying others’ life is the goal of the day. I have observed several town-society and found no exceptions. By the way, along time Pozzillo, with its 900 inhabitants, ended up having an upper town and a lower town with two churches, two patron saints, two bars and everybody was happy to compete forever.

Here the breeze from the mountain alternates with the breeze from the sea that brings salt enclosed into humidity particles. The microclimate they create balances the ripening of the fruits, allowing production of the best LEMONS OF SICILY.

Harvest was a party

Lemons can only be picked by hand. April is time to pick yellow lemons throughout Sicily, but here playing with irrigation and thanks to the special exposure to the sun harvest is also in August when lemons are called verdelli. Our autochton lemons.

It is very important to pick the lemons leaving the stalk attached at the first step, to prevent them from drying. Then stalks are removed one by one with a specific tool, before placing into cases. Workers used a ladder to step up amongst branches, pick the fruits and put into jute-covered baskets with straw inside not to damage the skin that contains essential oils. When plastic replaced baskets……that pure smell of lemons was lost forever. Being in a lemon yard, grabbing a fruit, grating the skin on fresh food just served is a time machine to enter the past where life was “different”.

The ancient arts of trading 

Sales is the core of business and to me it is arts too. At that time there were mediators or “sinsali”, from the ancient name of mediators dealing with salt. There were no emails, whatsapp, sms, but messengers. Mediators made the difference, as today. Behind the experience, a place, a service, there is people and people make the difference, lucky us. The mediators always tried to make deals but they knew where the best lemons come from. The buyer had the best mediator who on his turn sent a consignee to check the goods lemon by lemon, sit counting them for hours. When he tried to reject or discard some fruits, in order to pay less for it, my grandfather always present was there to defend it proud and firm. He would have never sold off his lemons.

The goods was weighted into a scale that reached 500 kg, the basculla, as the one we see in the picture. I used to weight myself on it too. I am still obsessed by scales. Watching me on that big scales is an unforgettable memory.

I am collecting ancient recipes with citrus fruits, for future publishing, from ancient Sicilian-foreign handwritten books. My ancient recipe about lemon jam says:

choose carefully the most beautiful lemons

brush the skin carefully

let fruits rest 24 hours and then other 24 hours, the water soften the fruit, make it ready

clean the jars

warm the jars

don’t rush, piano piano. 

And they teach TIME is the most important ingredient in recipes and life.