If you had the opportunity to name your community, what would you call it? Italy, with its incredibly long history, believe it or not, still has room for the occasional cartographic adjustment, and such is the case with Santa Maria del Cedro in Calabria. This burgeoning coastal town only acquired its name fifty years ago, when it chose to honor the cedro or citron, the prized citrus that flourishes in the area.
BRIEF HISTORY OF SANTA MARIA DEL CEDRO
Santa Maria del Cedro lies on the Tyrrhenian Sea between the Lao and Abatemarco Rivers in northern Calabria. Its modern history, in the Italian sense of the word, dates back to the 17th century with a manor house and cluster of countryside habitations. The hamlet, called Cipollina (near the big city), developed as a district of the town Grisolia.
In 1948 Cipollina became an independent community, its population having tripled from earlier in the century. In 1955 its name was changed to Santa Maria, and then in 1968, Santa Maria del Cedro or Saint Mary of the Citron—certainly more attractive than St. Mary of the “Chip Off the Old Block,” and better adapted, as well. Today, the population of close to 5,000 focuses on agriculture and tourism.
Santa Maria del Cedro’s ancient history goes back much further. The Marcellina section, for instance, was a thriving metropolis of Greater Greece. Called Laos, the city was founded by the Sybarites when Sybaris on the opposite coast was destroyed in 510 BC. To give a sense of its proportions, Strabo, the Roman geographer and historian, wrote that Laos was as large as Pompeii!
In addition to the Antiquarium in Scalea, the Archeological Museum in Reggio Calabria has dedicated a number of display cases to ancient Laos. The artifacts include many pieces of terracotta, bronze armor and even a gold diadem.
RIVIERA DEI CEDRI or RIVIERA OF THE CITRON
Santa Maria del Cedro lies in the Province of Cosenza along Calabria’s northwestern coastline. Commonly referred to as the Riviera of the Citron, the territory ranges from the town of Sangineto (north of Paola) to Tortora, which borders Basilicata, the neighboring region. The name of the area derives from the widespread cultivation of a specific variety of citron called the cedro liscio Diamante or the smooth Diamante citron.
The Riviera of the Citron provides the perfect microclimate for the growth of this delicate plant. The sea furnishes warmth and a salty humidity, while the Pollino Mountains counter with cooler air to moderate the summer heat along the coast. Rivers descend from the mountains to meet the citron’s abundant water requirements. Not only acclimatized for Mediterranean plant life, this 80-kilometer stretch of territory also draws numerous tourists to its beautiful beaches, many quite dramatic, as well as its inland towns and villages. And what better way to characterize and promote a town or region of Italy than with a distinctive agricultural product?
WHAT IS THE CITRON – CITRUS MEDICA – CEDRO – ETROG?
The citron (citrus medica, botanical name) is a large, fragrant citrus fruit with a thick rind. Its center pulp is quite small and the wide pith is edible and not bitter like other citruses. Traditionally, its principal culinary usage has been in candied form, such as found in fruitcakes or the Christmas panettone.
In Italian, the word cedro means both citron and cedar tree, which may be confusing for those already familiar with the latter.
In Hebrew, the citron is called Etrog. Interestingly, this unique fruit plays an important part on Sukkot, the Jewish fall festival that commemorates the sheltering of the Israelis in the wilderness. Thus, it isn’t surprising that the citron was introduced to Italy by Jewish settlers. This would have been in the 3rd-century BC.
THE ETROG OF CALABRIA
In the Old Testament, Leviticus 23:40 makes reference to the fruit of a beautiful tree, or Perì ‘etz adar in Hebrew: “On the first day you shall take the fruit of majestic trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.” (New Revised Standard Version) Talmudic tradition denotes the citron or Etrog as the fruit described in this verse. Thus, the citrus has been integral to Sukkot celebrations for a very, very long time.
What this means for contemporary Calabria is that for two weeks every year, either in July or August depending on when Sukkot falls on the calendar, rabbis descend on Santa Maria del Cedro to select the most perfect specimens for their ceremonies. Some choose about 1,000, others as many as 20,000. Local farmers say that, amazingly, the fruit is always ready for the visit, even though the date varies from year to year.
The process is meticulous. The citrons must not be on a plant that has been grafted. The fruit must be healthy, of a nice conical shape, green in color and with the crown intact. Citrons sell for about 10 Euros apiece and inspectors usually examine between 10 and 100 individual pieces of fruit for each Etrog selected. Particularly beautiful and perfectly proportioned fruit can sell for hundreds of dollars.
After the selection of the Etrog, the remaining fruit is left on the vine to mature and is then gathered for food products. Cedro candito or candied citron is the most common use and at the Museo del Cedro (Citron Museum) in Santa Maria del Cedro, I learned that the process was a bit more involved than I would have imagined.
The Diamante citron are halved and placed in a brine solution in barrels for 69 days. At the point the rind takes on a crystalline appearance, the citron are removed and seeded. They are then placed in fresh water for several days to take the salt out. Finally, the fruit undergoes the candied phase in a sugar and water solution.
The candied citron pieces I tasted at the museum were delicate in both flavor and texture with a pleasantly aromatic citrus taste. By the way, the little gems from the Riviera of the Citron are not destined for supermarket panettone or fruitcakes, but for artisanal shops that prepare pastry for the discriminating palate.
DIAMANTE CITRON PRODUCTS
In addition to candied fruit, the citron has inspired a host of edible and very drinkable creations, such as marmalade, syrup, liquors, extracts and cookies. On my visit to the Citron Museum I took the opportunity to try many of the products presented by the Consorzio del Cedro, the local consortium that promotes and develops the area’s precious commodity: extra virgin olive oil aromatized with citron; a citron extract mixed with water and sugar to make a decidedly pleasant beverage; a citron liquor; a liquor cream; and even a grappa.
On top of the lovely flavor of the citron, the fruit’s health properties have been recognized for millennium, such as with regard to stomachaches, the gout, and also as a detoxifying and cleansing agent. The citron is widely used in perfume and cosmetics, as well.
The delicate flavor of citron gelato or a pastry incorporating citron extract, the tang of citron marmalade or the fragrant sensation of the candied bits is routine on the Citron Riviera. The novel citrus is also featured in numerous savory dishes at local restaurants, in which chefs experiment with this ancient fruit to create new offerings for an ever-curious clientele.
THE CITRON LANDSCAPE
Relishing the freshness of the Diamante citron’s subtle flavor, I reflected on the plant’s delicateness and its need for constant care. The citron is a short tree with low hanging fruit, and farmers must work on their knees amongst the plant’s many thorns. I wondered who took care of the citron, as so much of the manual agricultural work in western countries is done by poorer foreigners.
According to Angelo Adduci, President of the Consorzio del Cedro, the citron is farmed by Italians, local calabresi, who have an intimate, longstanding relationship with this special plant. He described the areas of cultivation as fazzoletti, or handkerchiefs, small plots of land amidst larger fields. Looking out over the countryside from various locations, the fazzoletti were easy to spot as the trees were covered to protect them from the cold.
The landscape of Santa Maria del Cedro also has several historical structures worth pausing over. The imposing Norman ruins in the Abatemarco section have origins in a Byzantine community. The walls of the church, Chiesa San Michele, are still intact next to the jumbled castle remains. Nearby, a large aqueduct of the same period speaks to the area’s long agricultural history.
And finally, today’s home of the Citron Consortium is the recently restored Carcere dell’Impresa, literally Prison of the Enterprise or Business. I’ve read that it is unlikely that the large, attractive stone structure was used as a prison, and the name, which hearkens back to the feudal period, evokes the manner in which the peasants who were engaged in the building’s agricultural activity were treated. Presently, the hard work of the “Carcere” is that of visitors bending their elbow as they bring their hands to their mouths sampling citron products and learning about its history in the Citron Museum.
This unusual fruit has a story as curious as its physical properties, and its subtle taste is well worth exploring. So in what better place can you get to know the citron than in its namesakes, Santa Maria del Cedro and the other towns of the Riviera of the Citron?
For more information in Italian visit the website of the Consorzio del Cedro di Calabria. As with any small museum in Italy, I recommend calling for opening hours, particularly outside the summer tourist season: Museo del Cedro (39) 0985 42598.
Read about Calabria’s other remarkable citrus, the bergamot on my blogpost The Bergamot: Calabria’s Incredible Citrus and in Calabria: The Other Italy, my award-winning non-fiction book about daily life, history, culture, art, food and society in this fascinating southern Italian region.
Just down the coast in the town of San Nicola Arcella, also on the Citron Riveria, there is a tower where the American writer Francis Marion Crawford lived and wrote. Read about the “Crawford Tower” in “In His Blood”, the story he set in San Nicola Arcella, in my article that first appeared in the National Italian-American Foundation’s Ambassador magazine, as well as my blogpost Francis Marion Crawford and the Italian Novel.
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