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Tag Archives italy

The Land Where Lemons Grow by Helena Attlee

Sicilian lemon grove

Lemon trees in Sicily. Many of the traditional lemon groves are abandoned because maintaining them is labour intensive.

Next time I pass through Savona, I need to stop and find myself a candied chinotti. It’s a type of citrus fruit used in the perfume industry and candied in panettone.

I told a friend that I was reading a book about the history and farming of citrus fruits in Italy. He laughed. But the more you see a land, the more you want to understand it. It helps that the book flows with a personal narrative and delighting anecdotes.

Perhaps I enjoyed the book more because I’ve eaten Amalfi lemons, lived a few weeks on the outskirts of Palermo and wandered lost, in the rain, through abandoned lemon groves. Perhaps it helps to have drunk homemade limoncello.

Surely it helps that I know what a citron is. When I was in Sicily last winter, I ate a slice of one. This beast is somewhere between a lemon and a rugby ball. Its skin isn’t smooth. You can’t find it in our supermarkets, and its juicy centre is pitifully small. Imagine the earth, with its small core, thick mantle and rough crust. The segments are the core, the pith is the mantle and the yellow surface rough with character. The juice is incredibly sharp. You eat it, and the thick white pith, with salt.

Before visiting Sicily, I’d never heard of this fruit. Along with the mandarin and the pomelo it’s one of the oldest citrus. The rest of the citrus family (which is much more extensive than just oranges, lemons and limes) is descended from these fruits.

I made lemon sorbet yesterday afternoon.


“Don’t pick the prickly pear by the paw, when you pick a pear try to use the claw.”

prickly pear

When I first saw one of these in a greengrocers, I had no idea what it was.

“When you pick a paw paw or prickly pear.

And you prick a raw paw, next time beware.

Don’t pick the prickly pear by the paw, when you pick a pear try to use the claw.”

Baloo, The Bare Necessities, The Jungle Book

Prickly Pears in Napoli

In a greengrocer’s, in the outskirts of Naples, DeepThought and I had a minor argument about an aubergine. Apparently, I shouldn’t have bought an aubergine; he didn’t like them. But how was I supposed to know when he was busy enjoying having the delights of a fig of India, known to me as a prickly pear, peeled and sliced for him by the smiling young Italian woman behind the counter.

A prickly pear: it’s a fleshy fruit, with largish seeds which like seeded grapes remind you that what you’re eating has a purpose other than tasting sweet. You can eat the seeds. They crunch. These cacti fruits grow prolifically in southern Italy. But don’t just yank one free with your bare hand. This isn’t a fruit that’s smooth like a sweet mandarin, it’s covered in tiny spikes.

We took a couple home with us. Alongside the aubergine. And inevitably, a couple of hours later, (after DeepThought had been surprised by liking aubergine), it was necessary to dig out a pair of tweezers.

prickly pear

If you take off one of the big paddles and plant it in a pot, it grows. And grows. And grows.

Prickly Pears through History

Reading through Colour: Travels Through The Paint Box by Victoria Finlay I discovered that prickly pear plants are the homes of little white cochineal bugs which when crushed make a beautiful red dye. Lipstick red.

The journey of these plants from South America is a story of this dye. A plantation of prickly pears sprung up in Madras as part of a plot by the East India Trading Company to crack the Spanish monopoly and produce the dye themselves. The plants were brought from Kew Gardens and men began dreaming of the riches they would have if only they could get hold of the live bugs. The bugs though had other plans.

Prickly pear cacti were also taken to Australia with the intention to start up a cochineal industry there. Unfortunately, not only did all the bugs die, but the cacti went wild and have since become a prolific spiky weed.

prickly pear

Harvesting tools.

Prickly Pears in Sicily

In Sicily, in the middle of a grey siesta in a break from a storm, I went hunting my own prickly pears. Sicily is a good place for prickly pears, the Sicilian variety is apparently high in all sorts of wonderful vitamins. I didn’t have to hunt very far – I found pink pears on the driveway.

I took with me the prickly pear picker (I lack suitable claws) and a plant pot in which to place my pears. The trick is to place the cup around the pear and then twist. It’s easier said than done. My pears went rolling down the drive.

The next morning, I ate them for breakfast. They taste a bit like watermelon.


Travel: Arriving in Modena and falling in love with Italy all over again


It’s a good job that the clocks went back this weekend. After taking buses, trains and an aeroplane on Friday, I’ve hit a wall. I was in an easy going quiet village in rural France. The sort of place with just three bakeries and a church. However, it was time for a change, so I boarded my flight and arrived, some time later, in the hustle and bustle of Bologna. This was a detour on my way to Modena, which itself is a detour on my way to Naples. I’m off to meet DeepThought there next week.

Me and my suitcase (worryingly under 20kgs) arrived at the train station of Bologna. I wanted to catch a train to Modena but since I had some spare time, I thought it would be useful to buy some seat reservations ready for my exploration of Italy over the next month. Especially since the Trenitalia website hates me. As you might expect, it wasn’t much easier in the ticket office. There were not enough open desks and it was coming up to rush hour on the Friday evening before a long weekend. Tuesday is a public holiday here to celebrate the dead and Monday is a day off as a ‘bridge’.

To make sure the Italian man on the other side of the counter made the right seat reservations for me, I stood on my tiptoes leaning forward and gesturing at his screen with my pen. I’d written the details of what I wanted in my notebook to help this exchange. Even so, and not unexpectedly, it wasn’t a case of right first time. The ticket booth attendant spoke a lovely Italian. I replied not in Italian, which I can’t speak, but in a mixture of atrociously pronounced French and my tired Yorkshire infused English because my brain has gone poof.

To keep me on my toes, the app on my phone included trains and train stations that didn’t actually appear to exist.

I finally arrived in Modena, where Balsamic Vinegar comes from. It is very near to Ferrari land. In fact, my current host, a most hospitable Italian man who’s got a mountain of his own wondrous travel stories to tell, used to work in the Ferrari museum. As a true Modena man, he’s also the very proud owner of a small collection of real balsamic vinegars. Each is from a local family and tastes completely different. The experience is different to consuming the mass-produced variant. A deep sense of tradition and an attitude that treats vinegar like art results in this ‘black gold’. The bottles are so small that they’d pass through airport security in a sealed plastic bag.

He has an admirable Italian passion for food. We went out and got pizza, cooked by a Napolian chef in the local Modena style with aubergines.

Food matters to a true Italian. To amuse myself, I bought a couple of cachi (persimmon) and a few other vegetables from the fruit and veg shop down the street. Unlike a supermarket, or even a slightly larger grocery store, you must ask for each of the products you want. You do not touch. All the plastic carrier bags are stored behind the counter. The shopkeeper seemed delighted with my choice and particularly with my hesitant but correct pronunciation. I didn’t tell him that I leant the ‘chi’ sound from drinking Chianti. I’ve never had a cachi before, but found them heavenly and highly recommend them. Unfortunately, I spoilt it a bit by saying thank you in Spanish.

To recover from my travels I plan on spending my Sunday relaxing, perhaps going as far as the local art gallery.