Fran Paino, AKA F. Della Notte
This was an odd morning. I got up, as usual at 4 a.m. (no kudos here – just my body clock), prepared to sit at the computer and work on my story. I walked into the kitchen. There, perched on the corner of the table, with her cafe e latte in one hand, and waving a recipe for a Sicilian cake I’d printed out before Christmas in the other hand, was the muse. I took the paper and looked at the recipe again, captured by the bold, black font and pretty picture.
So, she commanded. Instead of worrying about plots, profiles, commas, apostrophes, nouns, and verbs, bake the cake.
Immediately – after my first cup of coffee, I assembled the ingredients, including lemons, and squeezed out fresh juice, then shaved off the zest, as instructed. This particular recipe depends heavily on the bright yellow fruit, sometimes sweet, sometimes not, that often decorates my martini glass. Today, it would flavor and brighten the cake. The entire process of creating the batter was not difficult, and soon the cake was in the oven. But my muse was not content.
Let’s talk about lemons, said she, a very Italian muse because we Italians, both human and spirit, do love our lemons, and off I went on a learning mission with the burning question at four a.m. Where in the world are the best lemons grown?
The answer varies depending on the website, but some of the best lemons are grown in Italy, on the Amalfi coast, just south of Naples. Beautiful varieties of lemons are also cultivated on the largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily.
Its Ionian coast was traversed by Odysseus on his ten-year voyage home from the Trojan War. Here he found his way to Aeolus, the god of winds who lived in a castle protected by a solid bronze wall on the island of Lipari – where my husband’s ancestors lived – but I digress. Back to the worthy subject of lemons.
Italian lemons are not to be confused with the expensive, succulent Meyer Lemons. That hybrid citrus originated in China and is a cross between “citron and mandarin/pomelo hybrid.”
On the other hand, Italian lemons are as distinct as the areas where they grow. There are two types of Amalfi lemons grown on the Sorrento Peninsula — “the Sfusato Amalfitano and the Limone di Sorrento. Found in different parts of the coast, these are among the most highly prized lemons in the world. They are PGI-protected by the EU, which ensures they are produced only on the Amalfi Coast,” preventing substitutes or imitations. The Amalfi coast provides fresh breezes off the ocean, which are trapped in the mountain valleys, creating the perfect ecosystem for the lemons to grow. They are protected from the northern winds to bask and mature in the coastal sunshine. Incidentally, the same is true for the oranges of this region. So special and fragrant are these fruits that Italians even reference their perfume in song.
Traveling south to the island of Sicily, the Interdonato cultivar is a natural hybrid between lemon and citron grown along the Ionian Sea coast in Messina. Then there are the lemons grown along the volcanic coastal strip of Etna, in parts of Catania, differing in size, shape, and color. These are rich in essential oils and of high aromatic quality, which can be attributed to the fact that they are grown in an environment with specific volcanic soil and climate.
Last but not least are the lemons from Siracusa (Syracuse), characterized by an intense fragrance and juiciness, which makes them particularly suitable for creating liqueurs, desserts, sorbets, and ice cream
Which of these varieties did I use? Well, the only lemons available to me, and in my fridge, were from the good old U.S.A., most likely grown in Arizona or California, where 95% of our lemons come from. The other 5% are grown in Texas and Florida.
I’ve told you more than you ever wanted to know about lemons, while my cake cooled. One bite convinced me that it was well worth the detour inspired by my muse. So, when life gives you lemons, you can make lemonade or bake a Sicilian Olive Oil and Lemon cake. You’ll love it. I certainly do.
With my espresso, and a slice of the moist cake with its delicate lemony flavor, enhanced by the olive oil beside me, I return to my computer, content and ready to focus on writing, but remember, when the muse calls…pay attention.