Thursday, 2 June 2016


Sicilian oranges 
lemons in Liguria 
I’m reading a book called The Land where Lemons Grow by Helena Attlee and so many other things are popping into my head. Are writers more guilty of having their thoughts go off at tangents? Perhaps an inner curiosity brings on a heightened awareness of things seemingly unrelated but yet with a thread of connectivity?

About a month ago I was at the Sharjah Children's Reading Festival in the UAE where illustrator, Alexis Deacon, Julia Eccleshare, Sophie Hallam and I were guests of IBBY (or UAEBBY as its called there). More recently I went to hear John Julius Norwich speak on Sicily at the National Geographical Society and went to the British Museum's exhibition, Sicily. (Don’t miss it… even if only to stand and stare in amazement at the minute coins with perfect intaglios of goddesses and dolphins) With these last two events fresh in my head, I understand how a book on citrus can take me on a journey through Sicily and even along the Amalfi coast, but how did it get me back to the Sharjah Children's Book Festival?

On a morning break from the Festival, we slipped out to the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization and I found myself alone behind a door that slid silently shut, surrounded by the world’s most famous Arab inventions, amongst them giant sextants and astrological devises, notes on stills for extracting and distilling rose oil and drawings and models of ancient machinery with pulleys and scoops driven by long suffering oxen that delivered water in huge quantities. How odd that four weeks later I should be reading a book that mentions two of these exact inventions.

Notes and drawings for distilling rose oil. 
drawings of an early Arabic irrigation system  
There’s little about Sicily’s natural climate to make it suited to growing tender oranges and lemons. It has a limited winter rainfall and citrus need heat and dampness together. When the first Muslim farmers arrived in Sicily they found the existing Roman irrigation systems limited to capturing and distributing what little water there was at a certain time. Arab methods were much more sophisticated. They captured every river and spring with interconnected tunnels through rock, so water could be delivered the entire year and they set about developing beautiful gardens of flourishing citrus trees that were known as paradisi. 

Citrus farming in Sicily changed forever.  Bal’tarm on the north-west corner, now known as Palermo, was the capital of Muslim Sicily. And when the Normans arrived in 1060 and conquered the Saracens, they adopted the same methods of Arab irrigation and agriculture. And later it was the citrus industry of Sicily that fuelled the Mafia wars behind the high walls of the paradisi, and that has also given the world the best blood oranges ever known, the tarocco, from the base of Mount Etna. The original citrus stock came from China via the Middle East and were known as naranjiya. Easy to see how the Italian word arancia came from this. Maybe even the Afrikaans word for mandarin – naartjie – can be traced back to this origin.
the Sicilian blood orange, tarocco
On my visit to the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization, alone in that quiet room, I could almost smell the rose oil from those evocative drawings of the distilling process. Then four weeks later in my book, The Land where Lemons Grow, the fact is mentioned again that the complex art of distilling was first discovered by Arabs in North Africa. Distilling hasn't much changed since the days of the earliest rose oils. In Calabria, in the toe of southern Italy, the bergamot groves provide the oil that is the base of many French perfumes and is also the oil that adds the edge to Earl Grey Tea. But bergamot oil is never distilled... always cold pressed.
the bergamot looks like a lemon but is in fact a bitter orange

Now I’m off at another tangent... to bake a cake I once ate for breakfast on a farm outside Perugia, torta all’ arancia, made with creamed boiled oranges, ground almonds and eggs (no flour) – the flavour so intense that it almost fizzes in your mouth.

Funny how the simple action of reading a book, can spur on a baking urge. And later today I might just have to indulge in a shopping spree … some citrus soaps from Sicily made by Ortigia, not only for their heady scent but for those beautiful boxes. And the words zagara and chinotto and tarocco will roll around my tongue for a while longer and I'll remember that quiet room in Sharjah and I’ll read The Land Where Lemons Grow a second time and see what new tangents it takes me on. It’s called interconnectivity. Or did I make that up? 
bottles of lemoncello lining a wedding table at Ravello on the Amalfi coast
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Sue Purkiss said...

I've very much enjoyed Helena's book, too. It sorted out a puzzle for me about Much Ado: why was Don Pedro Spanish? (Because the Spanish used to rule Sicily.) And it was very interesting about scurvy...

Penny Dolan said...

Interesting to see that green bergamot orange illustration, being a fan of Early Grey tea. What a delight of a post, Dianne, especially on a partly-grey day here!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Thank you both... and yes until I saw the exhibition at the British Museum never realised Sicily had had so many different rulers. And Penny a very happy belated Birthday. Hope your day was good.

Anonymous said...

Di I am looking forward very much to reading the book you are discussing. But may I say that your interlinking of the information in the book with your travels and experiences were a joy to read. I hope that the book is able to match your wonderfully evocative descriptions. Bev