In the haze of an early Sicilian morning I have looked from the hill of the much-visited cathedral of Monreale outside Palermo, shut my eyes to the concrete jungle and imagined how once the valley visible beyond was indeed as beautiful a paradise as any on Earth. The famous Conca d’Oro, or Bowl (not “Shell”) of Gold, came to fame as a vast valley of scented lemon and orange trees. Like Paradise, it has had its serpents. I now realise that the human snakes in its past and present make Eden look like a haven for female-friendly reptiles.
This realisation has crystallised thanks to a truly fascinating new book. Helena Attlee is no stranger here, having written excellent books on the gardens of Portugal and also of Japan, both of which should guide FT visitors in search of better holidays. She is well known, above all, for her expertise in Italy where she lectures to tour groups and also writes with a knowing eye and ear about the country she manifestly appreciates. Over the years, she too has been struck by the contrasts in Sicily’s and south Italy’s landscape, that village-free zone, its people clustered into towns from fear of bandits, with next to no country houses as we understand them, and the haunting contrast between vast prospects of treeless, sometimes arable land, harsh rock-faced hills and suddenly, in patches, green acres of citrus trees in evergreen leaf. When you land in Catania airport in late spring, an overpowering scent of sweet orange-blossom, the zagara, blows across the tarmac.
For many years, Attlee has been collecting evidence for a story of citrus trees in Italy. The result, The Land Where Lemons Grow, is remarkable, excellently produced and essential for all lovers of Italy, their summer libraries and out-of-season itineraries. Nowadays, lemons, like men and women, have to be waxed. Attlee looks beyond the superficial sheen and third-rate taste of supermarket citrus fruits and restores the history and superior value of what still survives in imperilled parts of Italy. Just beyond Reggio Calabria, near the strait across to Sicily, there are still stands of the bergamot citrus, the most valuable citrus in the world. It was imported there in about 1650 and is revered for its flowers’ exceptionally strong scent. It was made into the first-ever Eau de Cologne by a local grower who emigrated from its farms to Germany. Up, amazingly, on the Italian Riviera just west of Genoa, farmers met by Attlee still grow the dwarf, bitter-fruited chinotto lemon, the base for a memorably sharp drink in the local bars. Chinotto’s old bottles, labels and history have recently become a digital cult with their own website. Fans do not always realise it is still available and locally drunk.
The lemon and the sour orange, called naranj, arrived in the west with Arab conquerors and reached Sicily by about 830. The history of oranges splits into several branches, each botanically different, one sour and the other, a later arrival, sweet. The origins of the lemon are still much disputed, some favouring Assam and Myanmar and crediting the Indian cultures with this great, bitter blessing. Others, I think rightly, study the cluster of different wild citruses which are now known in western China. Except in Oliver Stone’s film Alexander, when the historical consultant, myself, was absent, Alexander the Great was never offered an orange. He did, however, know the orangey citron, on which Attlee’s account leaves a little more to be said. Alexander’s accompanying writers observed it growing in special beds near modern Hamedan in Iran. It had become known in Greece, perhaps only a decade earlier, and is charmingly made into a joke in a comedy in Athens. A simple-minded Boeotian girl, the ancients’ forerunner of our “Essex girl”, first sees its newly arrived yellow fruits and mistakes them for the fabled fruits of the Hesperides, the mythical garden at the world’s end. In his superb “Primavera”, Botticelli later painted oranges and lemons (unwaxed) in the trees above the (unwaxed) three Graces doing their spring dance on the finest flowery meadow in art.
An entire book could also be written about the Greek involvement with citruses. Meanwhile, Attlee’s book is unmissable for anyone intrigued by the relation between humans’ travel, greed and ingenuity and the spread of the plants that we eat, smell and drink. She justly honours the French noblewoman who married one of the Orsini and became the Princess of Nerola, near Rome, in the 1670s. She loved the scent made from sour oranges and used it on her gloves and in her bath. It became known as “neroli” and has become the essential base for scents all over the world. Never underestimate the economic impact of a lady in her bath. In pursuit of such threads, Attlee has met so many Italian practical experts on their home ground. From Genoa to Palermo and even Lake Garda she has transformed my view of the country and its achievements, that mixture of devoted skill and callous ruination.
The Conca d’Oro, she explains, has been the breeding ground of the Mafia since the mid-19th century. The origins of the Mafia continue to be disputed. but she shares the view that mafiosi grew to prominence by dominating the Conca’s orchards of valuable oranges, just outside Palermo. Each capo would “tax” the growers, hoard the fruits to obtain the highest prices and dispose of anyone who tried to fight the system. Their killers once hid in the Conca’s narrow alleys and behind the high “garden” walls which I have innocently admired on foot. Beside the rough, decaying farm tracks, Attlee dwells on the late 19th-century tombstones of victims which are still in place.
The Conca then had a second life as a haven for heroin manufacture, concealed behind the locked gates of a big citrus orchard. From Sicily it went to Corsicans in Marseille and then off to the US. She has even talked with Giuseppe Barbera, who once had a grant to study the irrigation systems at the heart of the citrus cover for heroin. La Favarella was the centre, a farm of mandarin oranges, controlled by the infamous mafioso Michele Greco. Barbera knew him well: “He dressed like a farmer in worn tweeds, liked to chat about football and was passionate about his mandarin groves.” He also killed ruthlessly.
When I last looked over the Conca and thought there were signs of green hope, parts of it had been valiantly replanted by Leoluca Orlando, the three-time, anti-mafia mayor of Palermo. When he resigned from his second term as mayor in 2000, the replanting project collapsed and since 2007, the Conca has been spattered even more intensively with concrete.
Sicily is only one part of the lemon land’s story. In the fine limonaia, or lemon house, at the Medici villa, Castello near Florence, you can still see the terracotta army of potted lemons under cover in late March. Each is labelled and none is grown on hype with the strong fertilisers which force lemon trees for sale in garden centres and then leave them to collapse after a year of real life in a buyer’s garden. The shaping of lemon trees into the hollow cup-shaped “coppa Toscana” style is designed to persuade customers they are buying “trees”. Attlee has talked with the brilliant Paolo Galeotti, curator of the citrus collection at Castello. He is the genius who recovered the lost bizzaria citrus, a famous old cross between an orange and a citrus-lemon with a very odd fruit and form. He noticed just one odd twig on one of his lemons and realised it was a repeat of the freak that once made the lost bizzaria possible. So he regrafted it.
Will lemons now grow in London? Attlee avoids the question, but it has divided my family. My baronial daughter, Martha, began her Mayfair garden by planting lemons in pots. l told her they would die in the first winter, but they did not. Last year they fruited and she gave me one to suck, to teach me a lesson. It was bitter and very squashy. For lemons, you need a sheltered courtyard and a hyper-optimism that is not for hardened gardeners like myself.
‘The Land Where Lemons Grow’, by Helena Attlee, Particular Books, £20