Country Living

The following extracts – from ‘A Secret Agent’ by food writer Philippa Davenport for Country Living Magazine – have been reproduced by kind permission of the author.

Sidney Smith, that amiable cleric and bon viveur … complained on being sent to a parish in deepest Yorkshire in 1809 that it was “12 miles from the nearest lemon”, in other words, gastronomically beyond the pale. How right he was. For the lemon, although not one of life’s most obvious pleasures, is the most civilised and civilising of fruits. The cook would be lost without it. No other fruit can match its versatility. Like sugar and salt, it sometimes plays the role of secret agent, insinuating its way into dishes, enhancing and improving the foods it partners, allowing them to taste more truly of themselves, rather than seeking to advertise its own presence.

I have always thought of Italy as the home of the lemon, Sicily in particular, an association heightened by the opening shot of Cinema Paradiso. It was, though, to the Bay of Naples … that my eyes were opened to new lemon delights. For the Amalfi area is unique in lemon-growing circles, the only place where the sfusato grows: a large and magnificent variety of lemon with manifold uses, as our lemon-loving guide and gourmet, Alfonso Imperato was eager to show us.

Lemons

We visited a bakery where patisserie cooks were busy dousing freshly baked sponges with lemon syrup and stuffing profiteroles with lemon cream. We braved the salt sea spray and held up fishermen anxious to get their silvery catch to market. In a gelateria we watched the confection of exquisite lemon granitas and sorbets …

In cool cavernous warehouses we saw freshly harvested lemons being sorted and packed by men who cradled the fruit as delicately as babies, laying them on mattresses of lemon leaves in cloth-lined baskets. Using fearsome “four-finger” knives they cut into the fruit at random to show off its quality and offered us slices to sample – to eat alone or to dip into sugar or salt.

I tasted, at first apprehensively, then greedily, as I began to appreciate why sfusato lemons are so highly regarded. They are not only bigger, but deliciously scented and far less bitter than the mouth-puckering sort we are used to. The rinds are unusually thick, tailor-made for candying. The flesh is large-globuled, tender and succulent. The juice is fresh-tasting, semi-sweet and supremely aromatic.

In their homeland, sfusato lemons are used not only in ways that ordinary lemons are used, but are also eaten as fruit – peeled and segmented like oranges, spooned like grapefruit or sliced into fruit salads. They are often included in savoury salads or served as an antipasto, luscious with a dribble of oil and a seasoning of salt. Sometimes a few black olives, peppery leaves of rocket, or slices of bulb fennel may be added. The people of Minori, who grow the very best lemons of all, dress them with vinegar as well as oil, eloquent proof of the fruit’s dulcet character.

… lovely lemon salads & other local dishes, including fresh anchovies filleted and marinated in lemon, char-grilled peppers and wild mushrooms, farro e fagioli, the lightest ever polenta with borlotti beans, spaghetti dressed with colatura di alici (a rare treat related to the liquamen of ancient Rome) and slices of mozzarella grilled in lemon leaf wrappings until molten and fragrant.

The high point of the trip, in every sense, was a visit to the lemon terraces that snake narrowly around the contours of the hills above Minori. Accessible only by foot or by donkey up flights of steps from the village (huffing & puffing I counted 800 or more) … Everything up here is done the way it has always been done, shaped by necessity. Elsewhere lemons may grow in groves. Here they clamber up and over wooden posts and trellises made from trees felled in these hills, and the trellises slant downwards so the fruit, facing out to sea, grows in the canopied shade of its leaves. Walls of stone hewn from the rock build up the terraces to keep them level and stop the soil being washed away. Willows are grown on the fringe, their whippy shoots being used to tie in the lemons, which saves hauling up bales of twine or wire from the village below.

The soil is rich with animal dung and leaf mould, and every inch is used. Herbs, saladings and beans nestle at the feet of the lemons. Strawberry clumps and nursery graftings of new lemons are tucked into gaps. Seldom have I seen such loving and careful cultivation.

The quality was reflected in the eating when we sat down to lunch at the pig-killing table. The lemon featured at every stage – as antipasto, seasoning for the chicken, dressing for the greens, macerating agent for the strawberries, flavouring for the cakes and a heady liqueur. What a feast, what company!

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