Yes, I do sometimes read non-fiction. I recently heard Helena Attlee talking to Michael Berkley on Radio 3’s Private Passions and was very intrigued by the sound of her 2014 homage to lemons and other citrus fruits. Yes, I buy products purporting to include “Sicilian lemons” but beyond that I’d never thought about the citrus industry, its traditions, problems and relationship with Italy.
And Attlee – whose day job seems to be leading garden tours in Italy – has achieved an outstanding piece of quasi journalistic work. She has travelled the whole length of Italy – did you know lemons can be, and are, grown on the shores of Lake Garda? Me, neither. She has interviewed people in the industry, talked to botanists and read the history extensively. But all this is worn lightly in her accessible, informative book which includes little maps and occasional recipes, the latter probably for interest rather than to make.
I learned a lot. All citrus fruit, for example is descended from three basic fruits but the present day citrus network is huge and complex. It probably arrived in what we now call Italy from the Middle East in the early centuries AD. Other random facts I gleaned include the origin of the mafia whose rackets began in the lemon groves of Sicily in the nineteenth century when the crop was very valuable especially when exported to America.
Then there’s vocabulary. The British Navy wanted limes for its crews to prevent scurvy on long voyages (long before anyone knew that Vitamin C, aka ascorbic acid, was the magic component) and they were unloaded in London at – of course – Limehouse. Thus British sailors, and eventually all Brits were nicknamed “limeys”.
As for marmalade, well of course it doesn’t have to be Scottish although I was happy to learn how the Keiller factory in Dundee started as the brainchild of an opportunistic grocer with an unexpected shipload of cheap oranges. The best marmalade, however, is – according to Attlee – made in Italy and she tells you where you can buy it.
Attlee is a very sensual writer. She is good at conveying the climate and beauty of Italy as she travels and she has quite a gift for describing the taste and fragrance of different sorts – some of them very rare – of fruit. And I certainly didn’t know about the religious significance of fruit to some Jewish sects or that some fruit has to picked so carefully that there is virtually a coffee-fuelled meeting to discuss each individual plucking.
I am now looking forward to reading Attlee’s 2021 book Lev’s Violin. I play the violin myself and, apparently this is an account of a quest to uncover the history of a specific instrument. If it’s as good as The Land Where Lemons Grow, I’m in for a treat.