Sicilian P.G.I. Lemons

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"Do you know the country where the lemons bloom?" With these words, in 1795, the famous German intellectual J. W. Goethe recalled, in one of his novels, the desire to return to southern Italy, a privileged area for the citrus growing.

Symbol and flagship of Sicilian agriculture, the lemon has been cultivated in Sicily since the Arab domination in the tenth century, before the rest of Europe. It came in Sicily from the East along the commercial routes laid down for centuries, crossing Egypt and North Africa. The lemon (Citrus limon) is a hybrid obtained from the cross between the cedar and the pomelo which  belongs to the Rutaceae family. It propagates by cutting or grafting, has elliptic leaves and thorny branches. Its blossoms are white and fragrant. The color of the skin, green or white or yellow variegated, depends on the harvest time, according to which it is possible to distinguish among  different varieties: “primofiore”, “verdelli” or “bianchetti”.

Citrus fruits are mentioned also in Liber De Regno Sicilie of Ugo Falcando dating back to the 12th century, which described the beauties of Sicily. According to this description, citrus fruits have a colored and fragrant skin on the outside and are acidic on the inside: lemons (lumìas) have an acid taste and are ideal for seasoning food,  while the bitter oranges (arangias) have a sour taste.

Up until the 16th century the lemons were only used to prepare luxury food; only from the 17th century, thanks to the work of the Jesuit Fathers, who were expert farmers, the lemon trees cultivation began on a large scale in the territory of Syracuse. Thus, this cultivation became one of the main sources of livelihood, reaching a production of about 11,600 tons in 1891. This success led to the birth of a large number of citrus firms, engaged in extracting concentrated citrus juice, calcium citrate and citric acid from the lemon juice.

In the second half of the 19th century, the Siracusa lemon called “Femminello” established its position in the international markets (above all in the United States and England) and, at the beginning of the XXth century, the main destinations of this product were the ports of Trieste, London, Fiume, Liverpool, Glasgow, Manchester, Malta and Odessa.

The production area of ​​the so-called Syracuse Femminello (whose name derives from the remarkable fertility of the plant, flourishing all year) extends into the hinterland of Syracuse (in the municipalities of Syracuse, Augusta, Avola, Floridia, Melilli, Noto, Priolo Gargallo, Rosolini, Solarino, Sortino). Moreover, this is widespread along the  Ionian coast, also called the Riviera dei Limoni (Lemons Riviera) due to the extraordinary spectacle offered by the lush lemon gardens overlooking the sea, visible on the sides of the road that goes from Acireale (the city of Riviera dei Limoni) to Riposto.

In the fifties of the twentieth century, Sicily was the largest producer of lemons in the Mediterranean area:  ships laden with Siracusa Femminello left the ports of Syracuse, Riposto and Catania also to  France, Germany and Eastern countries. There were many professional figures engaged in this sector, such as the «sensali», mediators who were charged of buying and selling the lemon; the «carrettieri» who transported the product inside the «cascie» from the countryside to the storehouse; «U scartataru», who bought the production waste to use it in the juice processing industry; the «carovana» who loaded the packages inside the wagons; the «spedizionieri» who prepared the documentation for customs clearance and sale abroad; and the «malazzinari», who prepared and packaged the product in the warehouses.

The Siracusa Femminello is the most representative cultivar in Italy. The plant blooms three times a year: primofiore (from October to March), the bianchetto (from April to June) and the verdello (from July to September). With a cultivated area of ​​5,300 hectares, and 150 thousand tonnes of product, it comprises 42% of the entire national production. In 2011 it obtained the prestigious European PGI certification and, in 2015, it has been presented as ambassador of Sicily at the EXPO of Milan. In 2000 it has been founded the Consortium for the Protection of the Siracusa Lemon PGI.

Being the citrus with the highest content of vitamin C and citric acid, essential for the proper functioning of the organism, the Sicilian Siracusa Femminello boasts many beneficial properties: it promotes intestinal activity, helps respiratory disorders; lowers cholesterol; blocks gum bleeding, reduces toothache and improves bad breath. It is excellent against skin aging, acne, eczema, sunburn and bee stings. It also reduces hair loss, helps eliminate dandruff, regulates high blood pressure, it is eye-healing, fights free radicals and has coagulant and antiseptic properties. For this reason, in ancient times in Sicily, it was custom to add half-cut lemons to disinfect water supply:  modern research has confirmed the effectiveness of this ancient usage.

In the last decades the production of limoncello liqueur, obtained from the essential oils from the rinds, has increased considerably. Lemon rinds are also used to make candied fruit to be used in pastry making.

Interdonato is another cultivar of lemon, very appreciated in Sicily,  which has been cultivated in the Ionian side of Messina from the second half of the nineteenth century. It takes its name from Giovanni Interdonato, a Sicilian Garibaldian colonel, a passionate citrus grower who, having retired to private life, made more than one hundred grafts on his lemon trees, until he obtained this hybrid,  from the cross between a cedar and the "ariddaru", a local lemon. The result was a medium-large lemon, very similar to the cedar, with a delicate and slightly acidic flavor, with a very fine-grained peel that is not usal in Sicilian lemons.

Called Limone Interdonado Messina Jonica, this product received the PGI certification in 2009, and it has been protected since 2002 by a specific Protection Consortium.

For its particularly sweet and delicate flavor, it is an excellent lemon to be eaten alone, even with peel, or to be enjoyed as a salad, thinly sliced ​​with oil, vinegar and salt. It can be used in the most varied recipes ( such as the typical lemon zuccarato) as well as to prepare many drinks; it is also the best lemon to go with the tea.