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The Extraordinary Lemons of Sicily

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When life gives you lemons, make designer perfume and limoncello.

In the “Lemon Riviera”—aka Sicily—lemons are not just an agricultural resource. They are a year-round way of life. For more than 1,200 years, residents of the Italian island have been cultivating the tart citrus and living among verdant orchards speckled with sunshine-colored fruits. 

Lemons arrived in Sicily in the 9th century, when Islamic armies captured the island, paving the way for new crops to cultivate in the mineral-rich soil. That included lemons, and thanks to an advanced irrigation system that they learned in Persia and India, the fruit flourished. Even as the ruling parties changed, Sicily remained the world’s top producer and exporter of lemons for centuries. 

Today, Sicily supplies Italy with 90 percent of its lemons. Besides being used for food preparation, the fruit is also distilled into the liqueur limoncello and used to make essential oils that appear in designer perfumes, such as those made by Dior and Lancôme.

Fabio Moschella is president of the Consorzio di Tutela del Limone di Siracusa IGP (Consortium for the Protection of the Siracusa Lemon PGI), a nonprofit that maintains the quality of Sicily’s lemons. He’s been farming for 40 years.  “Here, lemons found favorable conditions and [an] extraordinary environment,” Moschella says. “You find lemons in small family and vegetable gardens. Since it’s been a widespread important product, it became part of the landscape.”

Sisters Vera and Saria Calabretta co-own Agriturismo San Leonardello, an organic farm and rustic agrotourism inn outside of Catania. The farm, located at the foot of Mount Etna, Sicily’s largest active volcano, has been in operation since the late 1800s. The Calabretta sisters restored some country homes near their lemon groves in 2001, and now offer bed-and-breakfast stays for those interested in waking up among the trees. 

“It's normal that the agriculture and the areas change, but it's nice to share with people the history of these landscapes,” they agree. “These little lemons tell the story of an island.”

Sicilian femminello lemons, which grow on the sisters’ farm, have unusual qualities that make them particularly desirable: They are less acidic than other varieties, have more juice, and have oilier skin, which can be extracted for use in cosmetic products. This variety is so special that it has been granted IGP status (an acronym translating to “protected geographical indication”) by the European Union. This designation ensures that the crop is regulated for quality and sustainability, and that consumers can trace their farmers market find back to the land where it was grown.

“Guests who come here are so enamored by the lemon trees that they don’t see the imperfections [of the fruit],” the Calabretta sisters say. “They're more struck by the beauty.”

The recent IGP designation helped restore the allure of Sicilian lemons, which faced a crisis in the ‘90s after a water shortage and the mismanagement of resources by large farming corporations. And while a variety of issues—including an aging farming workforce, climate change, and the Italian problem of destructive overtourism—have farmers questioning the future of their most prized product, they have hope thanks to a renewed interest from health-conscious and eco-friendly consumers.

“Tradition is very important, because it is our roots and past,” Moschella says. “But tradition without innovation is useless. We need to interpret the world and see it under a modern light. We must remember that what came before cannot be erased. It's inside of us; it's part of our DNA.”

To help you understand more about where your food comes from, Munchies and Liberté have partnered to produce UPROOTED, a three-part mini-documentary series premiering in December 2017. This series profiles three ingredients found in Liberté products that are not only delicious, but have stories to tell about how they reached their ideal climates and how they’ve changed the communities around them.

Alyson Sheppard is a food and beverage writer, whose work regularly appears in GQEsquire, and Playboy magazines.

Photographs by Giuseppe Zizza