When Life Gives You Lemons, Dream of Sorrento

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Lemons — the smell of them teases out dreams of sunny days and slower ways, of light twisting through splintery pergolas hung heavy with purple wisteria. And, of course, bees buzzing above the wine glasses and darting through clumps of flowering thyme on the ground below.

Lemons — the sight of them conjures up visions of Moroccan markets, the thin-skinned preserved doqqs and bousseras perched precariously in white enameled bowls, the blue rims crusted with the salt and juice of those preserved lemons. (Not any lemon will do; legions of food writers should have their writing hands whacked with a ruler for writing that “any lemon will do.” Only thin-skinned lemons, mind you; Meyers might do, but not the tough little supermarket lemon, its pith the width of a bad pancake. Thin-skinned, yes, that’s the right lemon.)

Preserved Lemons in Morocco

Lemons — the feel of them — griped hard and squeezed in the hand, seeds removed with the tip of a sharp paring knife — teaches something about resistance, about strength, about not giving up life’s juice easily.

Their yellow brightness much like a beacon, whether sitting in a bowl, a painting, and a poem — even lemons could never escape the pens of poets.

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, like Keats with his Grecian urn, wrote an ode, Oda al Limón (A Lemon):*

Cutting the lemon
the knife
leaves a little cathedral:
alcoves unguessed by the eye
that open acidulous glass
to the light; topazes
riding the droplets,
aromatic facades.

Still Life with Two Lemons, Pieter Claesz, 1629

Artists, too, found the lemon a comely subject, particularly in Flemish and Spanish still-life paintings from the 17th– and 18th-centuries. One of the most memorable artist, Pieter Claesz, painted many lemons, some of them bearing the classic twisted peel so commonly portrayed in art at the time. The realism of Claesz’s paintings finds you nose-to-paint, half believing you could step through the canvas like Alice and end up in 17th-century Holland.

Originating most likely in the Indus valley, traveling through the Middle East to the Mediterranean, lemons settled in southern Europe like old English gentlemen comfortable in their men’s clubs. So much of Western cuisine exists because of history’s twists and turns, the comings and goings of traders, pirates, sailors, and slaves. And in Italy, particularly, lemons found a place to sink very deep roots, possibly as early as 200 A.D. or as late as 1000 A.D.  (See Clifford Wright’s excellent, if short, essay, on the history of lemons in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.)

Ah, Italy. Where the Mediterranean marks the crossroads of East and West, the dead center of cuisines that, through the centuries, shaped our own.

But, unlike the masses of people that fled the poverty, unlike the food serenaded on the pages of hundreds of cookbooks and magazine, one thing never became plentiful in the New World.

Sorrento Lemon, the Size of a Hand

And that one thing is the hand-sized Sorrento lemon, also known as Femminello St. Teresa.

Grown, yes, in California, too, but like a fine wine with its terroir, the real Sorrento lemon enjoys a designation of Indicazione Geografica Protetta (Protected Geographical Indication [IDG]). It may smell like a Sorrento lemon, it may look like a Sorrento lemon, and it may even taste like a Sorrento lemon. But it’s not a Sorrento lemon unless it wears a little blue label with “IDG” on it.

Around 1600, between Sorrento and Massalubrense, Jesuit priests planted the very first lemon groves on the Sorrento Peninsula in the Conca di Guarazzano basin, providing yet another example of the impact of the Catholic Church on food and food habits.

Growing Lemons in Sorrento (Photo credit: Richard Martin)

Not one to make preserved lemons, a Sorrento lemon plays a perhaps more revered role in life: without that fragrant yellow skin, limoncello — the lemony nectar of the Amalfi coast — would be much diminished.

For more about lemons, see the Purdue University horticulture department’s page on lemons.

Limoncello (Photo credit: Foodista)

*Original Spanish:

En el limón cortaron
los cuchillos
una pequeña
el ábside escondido
abrió a la luz los ácidos vitrales
y en gotas
resbalaron los topacios,
los altares,
la fresca arquitectura.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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