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.
Getting married meant moving into a new house. A house that already belonged to my husband, but was a place in which we needed to create a new home together. This can be challenging, especially when little superficially needs to be changed; it was fully furnished, nothing needed redecorating and even the garden was well established. The kitchen soon became my first place to settle in: I filled the shelves with my cookbooks and I hung my favourite pots over the cooker, but still there was a rootedness which I lacked. It was then that I started to look outside.
The new garden in full bloom
I have just been staying near Apt in the hills of Provence, looking out towards the Luberon mountains. The steep landscape is covered by oak and chestnut trees and wild herbs grow out of the rocky, dry earth. Cliffs of ochre, once quarried for the colour used to paint the local houses, cut through parts of the forest. These same hills are where the Maquis once hid and where wild boar are hunted.
The places and ingredients Elizabeth David talks about in her seminal book, French Provincial cooking, came alive as I discovered them first hand. Things that speak of the region and its history of food: artichokes Barigoule; apricots grown near Apt; soft goat’s cheeses from Banon and sweet Beaumes de Venise wines; Calissons – the small almond cakes from Aix and the intense melons of Cavaillon. As you wander through the markets, the air smells sweet with ripe fruit and in other parts, savoury with the meaty fragrance of salamis, olives and cheeses.
The first nectarine fruits are starting to appear. They are hard and smooth and their blush colour is gradually beginning to show through the taught green skin. Despite a hot summer and a warm stonewall to cling to, they won’t be ready for another few weeks. But there’s something this plant can produce in the meantime, that I discovered, almost by accident.
The first nectarines appearing
We planted some agretti (salsola soda) this spring. It sounds like a drink, but it’s actually something you eat. I’d been aware of this strange green vegetable for some time – the Italians love it and it is often served in restaurants during early spring. Occasionally I had spotted it at my local greengrocer, who specialises in Italian produce, but what was the story of this curious, green, succulent plant with bunches of spikey tendrils?
Curious green spikes growing from seed
A walk on Devon moorland recently led me to some great foraging opportunities, including some plants I’d never picked before.Wild wood purslane
I found myself in a sea of tiny pink flowers, beautiful in their own right, but then discovered their leaves are edible too. Wood purslane have small, succulent leaves with a fresh, faintly lemony taste, very similar to the larger purslane salad, sold in bunches in Middle Eastern vegetable shops. I like to add a handful of them to other green leaves, possibly with some sliced radishes and a light lemon and oil dressing.