When I think of lemons, I think of Italy: my favourite country to travel to, with a cuisine that celebrates these beautiful citrus fruit in every way. There is a wonderful book, written by Helena Attlee – The Land Where Lemons Grow – an exploration of both Italy and its extraordinary production of citrus fruit, which I read a few years ago. I’ve since re-read it several times, to squeeze out every last word of this evocative, informative odyssey into my two great passions: Italy and lemons.
I first encountered real Italian lemons as a child when I visited family friends in Northern Italy one summer. All along the terrace, which stretched the length of the front of the house, were huge terracotta pots holding lemon trees, covered in deep green leaves and hanging with bright yellow fruit. I had seen a million lemons in fruit bowls before but I had never seen a lemon growing from a tree. When I picked one, I saw the skin was thick and covered in deep pores, unlike the smooth wax-dipped British imports. Just holding the fruit in my hands made the citrus oils seep out onto my skin, perfuming them with a fragrance of zest, sunshine and freshness.
Italians have known these pleasures for thousands of years and although we often associate citrus growing with southern areas like the Amalfi coast, I later learnt in Attlee’s book that historically a thriving business also had operated close to where I was, around Lake Garda. Here the cooler climates produced lemons with an acidity which appealed to the Northern European market. The reason the lemons I saw were growing in pots, was not just a way to decorate the terrace, it was so the trees could be moved, when the temperatures drop dramatically in the winter, into purpose built limonaia or insulated lemon houses.