Since then, her love affair with her subject has blossomed, its highlights including tracking down the casts from which the famous Medici collection of wax fruit was made (casts recently rediscovered, but possessing a ‘quasi-magical ability to get lost’), and encountering a ‘bizzarria’, a chimera of a fruit produced by the grafting together of two citrus species.
It’s clear from Attlee’s tales that citrus fruit enrich Italian history the way that the juice of sour oranges flavours a tortoise pie (recipe included): the citrus groves of Sicily are still sometimes called ‘paradisi’, in a nod to their Islamic origins (and some are still irrigated using ninth-century Arabic systems), and a 12th- century rebellion in Piedmont
is annually celebrated in the Battle of the Oranges.
Among the best of the stories here is that of the professor of arboriculture at Palermo, who, as a student, had studied an irrigation system installed in a local mandarin grove. The farmer had given him a key to get in – a detail later cited in the farmer’s defence when he was charged with being a mafioso: how could his farm be a heroin refinery when he allowed a student free access? His downfall came when the student’s testimony indicated how often the locks were changed, barring his entry.
THE LAND WHERE LEMONS GROW: The Story of Italy and its Citrus Fruit by Helena Attlee, Particular Books, £20