WHAT IS THE BERGAMOT?
The bergamot is a wonderfully unique citrus that makes its home in Calabria. It’s quite puzzling, this strange fruit with a bitter, almost musty-smelling pulp and incredibly light, fragrant zest. Equally intriguing, the bergamot’s complex properties lend themselves to a wide variety of uses and products – from perfume to cuisine to pharmaceuticals – positively jaw dropping!
The bergamot is round, slightly larger than an orange and not as yellow as a lemon. The skin is thin and has a delicate fragrance while the interior is extremely pungent and resembles that of a grapefruit. Historically, this citrus has been prized principally for its essential oil that is obtained by pressing the skin. 90% of bergamot oil on the world market comes from Calabria, specifically, the Province of Reggio Calabria in the southernmost part of the region. The plant only grows in a small area ranging from Villa San Giovanni, just north of Reggio to Monasterace, which is around the tip about 100 miles along the coast.
PERFUME, FOOD AND DRUGS
The perfume industry claims the lion’s share of bergamot oil. Since 1709 when the essential oil became an important ingredient in the famous Eau de Cologne, the bergamot has been a key ingredient in scents ranging from the classic Chanel No. 5 to Dior’s very recent Sauvage, promoted by Johnny Depp. Interestingly, bergamot oil not only lends a fresh, zesty scent to perfume, but it also prolongs the fragrance for up to sixteen hours.
Gastronomically, the bergamot is best known for the flavor it gives to Earl Grey tea. This characteristic taste comes from the essential oil, and today many different teas incorporate bergamot oil as a principal ingredient. Another classic use is in hard candy, and the French, who are the biggest importers of the essential oil, have been making their Bergamote de Nancy for over 150 years. In addition to the classic international uses of the bergamot, Calabrians have been taking advantage of the unique flavor in their baking and distilling for a very long time.
Traditional homeopathic applications of the bergamot have also been carried out by the Calabrian people over several centuries, and the fruit has been used for everything from insect repellent to the ministration of wounds and as a treatment for malaria. More recently, this fruit has been the focus of studies that have shown it to reduce total cholesterol, lower blood pressure and decrease blood sugar levels. It’s a veritable cocktail all wrapped up in a very sweet smelling skin!
REGGIO, BERGAMOT CITY
At one time, the city of Reggio was renowned for its fragrant citrus fields. Edward Lear, the prominent 18th-century artist and writer, described it as “one vast garden, and doubtless one of the loveliest spots to be seen on earth,” citing its orange, lemon, citron and bergamot groves. The city has since expanded, and although Reggio’s downtown is lovely with a stupendous view of the Strait of Messina, today’s traveler would be hard-pressed to find a bergamot tree in the historic center, until this past spring, that is.
With the reopening of Reggio’s renovated Archeological Museum, the municipal government spruced up Piazza De Nava, which faces it, and ceremoniously planted a handful of bergamot trees. Pietro Pizzimenti, the proprietor of Pizzimenti Specialità Tipiche Calabresi, followed suit and planted a tree in Piazza Reitano, recently renamed after the icon of Italian folk music, Calabrian Mino Reitano. These trees were planted not only as a symbolic gesture of the return of the bergamot in the city center, but also, now residents and tourists can actually see the trees in the heart of Reggio, the Città del Bergamotto.
MOUTHWATERING BERGAMOT RECIPES
On the food front, the bergamot has been gaining ground in recent years. More and more people are discovering the taste sensations of this unusual citrus. And just this year, a couple of large supermarket chains started selling them in Italy’s northern regions.
A few months ago, I received an email and then a phone call from a new bergamot fan, John F. Carafoli, food writer and stylist, whose book Great Italian American Food of New England will be coming out next month. He had traveled to Calabria for the first time (with my book under his arm!) and was blown away by the food, this unique citrus in particular. He returned home and immediately started experimenting in his kitchen, creating several recipes, such as Bergamot Vodka Martini, Bergamot-Infused Vodka, Bergamot Panna Cotta and Bergamot Olive Oil Cake.
Ever since I first tasted honey with bergamot, I’ve raved about it. I mostly put it in my tea. John was inspired to mix a batch of his own with a jar of quality honey and a drop of the essential oil. He then drizzled it over a nice piece of pecorino (sheep’s cheese) and paired it with the region’s Cirò wine for a delicious appetizer. Squisito! (Exquisite, as they’d say in downtown Reggio.)
I always enjoy a dish of bergamot gelato and I won’t ever say no to a bergamot liquor, but the citrus is not just limited to sweets and alcohol. Seasoning the local swordfish, exalting a risotto dish or assuaging a Calabrian sausage – the possibilities are limitless. Why not start out with a refreshing bergamot granita?
Read more about this incredible citrus in the Chapter “Only in Calabria” of Calabria: The Other Italy, a nonfiction
Get up-close and personal with the bergamot on one of my Calabria tours, where you will have the opportunity to taste products made from both the oil and the pulp of this versatile citrus fruit. And visit Reggio’s Bergamot Museum.
Pizzimenti’s wide variety of Specialty Products from Calabria are available directly in their one-and-only store on Corso Garibaldi 263 in Reggio Calabria, or if you can’t make it to Calabria in person, from their website Pizzimenti Specialità Tipiche Calabresi.
Read about another extraordinary Calabrian citrus in my blogpost Santa Maria del Cedro and the Precious Diamante Citron. Other specialties of the region include the Peperoncino calabrese and the Annona.
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