A Citrus History of Sicily – travel review

Sicily is a large island just off mainland Italy. It has a variety of landscapes and the imposing Mount Etna which has donated volcanic soil to the fertile tapestry. Sicily citrus green lemonIt boasts long and unspoilt beaches that are deserted even in the pleasantly hot months of April and May, and if one is lucky one can watch dolphins at play as the sun goes down.

The island is blessed with picturesque villages and small towns, museums, shops, fresh air and food. There are subtropical areas growing exotic prickly-pear cactus and there are citrus trees for which Sicily is so famed. Lemons, oranges, blood oranges and mandarins all grow within sight of Mount Etna.

People have known for thousands of years of the health benefits of citrus fruit. Earliest cultivation of these fruits dates back at least 2500 years to Asia. According to various authorities the oldest reference to oranges and lemons is in a Sanskrit text.  Many specialists in the subject believe that the fruit we know today originated from a sour fruit found growing wild in China.

The lemon was also enjoyed in Roman times, as we know from archaeological evidence that they were grown in Pompeii. Planting continued across North Africa and then in southern Spain by the 8th or 9th century. By the 13th century planting had extended from Seville to Granada and into Portugal and Sicily when North African migrant farmers and botanists brought citrus to the island to grow in the emir’s beautiful gardens. It was this citrus production that earned the hills and valleys around Palermo the name “Conca d’Oro” (golden seashell) in the Middle Ages.

Sicily citrus oranges The modern English word orange, like the Italian arancia, probably derives from the Arabic naranj. The capital of the Arab world at that time was Palermo and the wealth of the city was said to rival that of ancient Baghdad. The Jewish population flourished and was respected by the resident Moslems in Sicily, and that mixed population enjoyed life along with the increasing number of Christians. (Those were the days!) All these diverse groups contributed to Sicily’s unique culinary heritage.

On a practical note James Lind, Fellow of the Royal Society, discovered while he was serving as a naval surgeon in 1747 that citrus juice could successfully treat scurvy, a disease that was the scourge of the British navy at that time, and recommended taking this during long sea voyages. Toward the end of the 18th century, Sicily began shipping lemons and oranges throughout the world as their health-giving properties became ever more widely recognized.

Blood oranges are so called for their red flesh and deep red juice. When ripe, their skin may also have a reddish hue. In Sicily, the most popular blood oranges are the Tarocco, the Moro and the Sanguigno. Though used extensively in salads and desserts, blood oranges are sought after for their striking red juice which is rich in antioxidants. Mandarins, Valencias and navel oranges are also grown in Sicily, but the blood orange is considered particularly Sicilian.

Sicily citrus blood oranges Citrus production begins in October with the Mapo. The Clementini, which are also members of the tangerine family but are seedless and sweet, ripen at that time, too. The seedless Washington Navel orange is grown along the southern coast and is popular between October and March.

Lemons growing around Siracusa continue to be a very important economic staple. The Siracusa region is considered to be the centre for production and processing of fresh lemons for both the Italian and European markets. On 3 February 2011 the name Limone di Siracusa was registered as having Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status. This PGI-awarded fruit is characterised by a high juice content, the amount of essential oils in the skin, and the high quality of those oils, which are used in the cosmetics and other industries. The local variety of lemon is called a femminello because of the fertility of the plant, which has flowers throughout the year. It is quite unusual to find a fruit tree that can have both blossom and mature fruit on its branches at the same time, but here they are in Sicily.

This is an island of great natural beauty and historic charm. One can enjoy modern city amenity but also seek out those shady orange and lemon groves, smell the blossom and appreciate fruits that have shaped the destiny of Sicily.


Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018


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