Citrus fruits from the Orient to Garda

Citrus fruits originate in China and India, but can be found around the globe. They first arrived in Europe with the Arabs around the year 1000. Several scholars believe that Sicily was the first Italian region to grown them, "probably under the Islamic influence  first,  and  then  under  the  Normans."
Citrus fruits were brought from the Liguria Riviera to Lake Garda during the 13th century by the monks of the San Francesco Monastery of Gargnano. From their garden, which still at the end of the 19th century was called the "first, because it was the first structure and cultivation" , citrus fruit trees later spread to Toscolano and Maderno.
In September 1464 antiques dealer Felice Feliciano from Verona wrote that Toscolano was "a place that was not only delightful and scented with the floral fragrance of roses and purple flowers, but also shaded everywhere by leafy branches of lemons and citrons." In 1483 even Marin Sanudo mentioned "zardini de zedri, naranzari et pomi damo" (gardens of lemons, oranges and apples) along the coasts.
In the 16th century Bongianni Grattarolo wrote, "For nearly ten miles along the lake, from Sal to Gargnano, there are many gardens whose amenities do not pale in comparison with what the poets wrote of Atlantis, Alcino, and the Hesperides, full in every season of the year of all those fruits with the golden peel."

The lemon house
Water from a stream, a sheltered valley, a gently sloping hill, and proximity to the lake were the fundamental requirements for building an enclosed lemon garden called lemon house or sard in the local dialect.
Often built on several terraces (cle), linked by stone stairs, these structures came in many different sizes. A massive wall enclosed it on three sides to ensure an eastern-southeastern exposure. At its center or on one of its extremities was the casl, a shed for storing roofing materials. The roof, which slanted toward the back, was supported by pillars connected by walls or large chestnut rafters called sparads that were 30 to 40 centimeters in diameter. Other smaller beams called canter were nailed in five or six parallel lines perpendicular to the sparads.
The lemon house was covered when the first frosts arrived in November. Wide planks called s were laid on the roof, while narrower planks called mes, glass windows (envdrie), and specially numbered doors (sre) were installed on the facade.
The fir wood planks used on the roof were about 5 to 6 meters long, 20 centimeters wide and 3 centimeters thick. Two planks were laid side by side, and a third was laid on top of the two; all were nailed along the line of the smaller beams. A frame was constructed on the front using three larch beams called filarle that were inserted, in parallel, into the pillars of the shed on three levels. They were blocked at one end by a stone that fit into a slot (pra da filarla). Five to six wood planks, two to three glass panes, and two doors were installed between one pillar and another.
The planks used on the front, which were 5 to 7 meters long and 20 to 25 centimeters wide, were composed of two overlapping planks that were nailed together (one was narrower than the other to form a sort of ledge) These were attached to the filarle with wooden pins (cavc' or biri), about 10-12 centimeters long, inserted into slots.
The glass windows on the front, which were between 5 and 6 meters tall and 50 centimeters wide, were formed by a fir wood frame and crosspieces that held the glass panes in place. These windows were propped up against the mes planks and held into place by wood pieces (paserle or galc') that pivoted on a nail. The doors, which were between 5 to 7 meters tall and about 50 meters wide, were simple planks laid side by side and nailed to three crosspieces. They also had hinges so they could be opened.
The lemon house had to be closed against the cold in November. Dry grass (pbol) was used to seal (stupinr) all gaps. An old proverb said "A Snta Caterna, stpna, stpna!"(By Saint Caterina's, seal them!"), meaning the sealing process had to be completed by November 25th, which was the feast day of the saint.
The lemon tree and its fruit suffer when the temperature nears 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit). If that happened, the only remedy was fogr (lighting fires with kindling, branches and leaves) all along the terraces.

Growing lemons
Each tree in the lemon house had an available surface area of between 16 and 20 square meters that was called a plot (cap or campa). The number of plots determined the size of a garden. Already in the 16th century Agostino Gallo established several rules for growing lemons, recommending that the plants have rich gravel-free soil and that fertilizer be spread before the soil was hoed and the lemon house was still uncovered . Besides fertilizing, the soil had to be weeded and hoed, the trees had to be pruned and irrigated, and the lemon house had to be covered and uncovered. The lemons were picked (spicnda) by hand while pickers stood on special ladders or three-legged stools, and were then placed in a leather sack (grmil).
Lemon trees flower several times a year, first in May then throughout the summer and fall. The fruits of May are not as smooth and round as the fruits of June and July. These are the best fruits, while the lemons grown in August are considered less valuable. The trees bloom and fruit is also picked, but in minor quantity, in September and October. Taking into account the production over a decade, one tree in full production supplied between 500 and 600 lemons, on average, during the two main harvests of May and June.
Citrus fruits were used for many things. Agostino Gallo wrote "a good amount of money can be made from many parts of the plants... citron blossoms can be eaten in salads or preserved in vinegar to be served with apples or sugar; even orange blossoms can be used for making superb scented waters....unripe fruit is used for many delicate condiments, and tiny oranges are used to make wreaths that are beautiful to look at and delightful to smell. The ripe fruit is valued for eating, making preserves and is given to the sick and also used in medicines... even orange peels are sold for making good pickled fruit relish, orange juice, paradello focaccias, liqueur and spiced bread".
Citron water, which was first produced in Sal in the second half of the 18th century by Antonio Bonardi and has been made by Luigi Patruzzi since 1840, was also quite popular.

The lemon trade
Once the lemons were picked, they were sorted according to size (fine, superfine, second-rate, rejects, and overly ripe) and different destinations. The fine, superfine, and best of the second-rate lemons went to Hungary, Tyrol and nearby countries, "leaving in Italy the second-rates and rejects, which were rarely sold outside the province."
Thus, lemons were given various names: fine lemons for Poland, fine lemons for Hungary, fine lemons for Russia, superfine lemons for Austria, superfine lemons for Vienna, rejects for commercial purposes, rejects for Milan, etc. Each type had a different price, which was given for one hundred lemons.
Lemons were wrapped in tissue paper and placed in wooden crates: each could hold between 500 and 1,000 lemons. Transportation also had to ensure that the product arrived in good condition at destination, so crates were loaded and unloaded carefully to prevent lemons from bruising and deteriorating in quality. Shipping the fruit to the most remote destinations was the biggest hazard: fruit traveling north went by way of Torbole and Nago to Bolzano, where there was a sorting station. Because they cost less to ship compared to lemons from Genoa and Southern Italy, Limone's citrus fruits were mainly shipped to Germany, Northern Europe and Russia.
In the early 18th century, Gian Domenico Bettoni founded the "G. Francesco Bentotti" company in Bogliaco for the lemon trade. It has agents throughout Italy and Northeastern Europe. The Bettoni archive has the registry books and correspondence between the company and its agents, as well as balance sheets and letters with the names of recipients from Vienna, Prague, Krakow, Warsaw, Lviv, Ulm, Konstanz, Trieste, Milan, etc.
Since the 18th century, the coastal area north of Sal, at the latitude of 46 degrees, became the northernmost area in the world for growing citrus fruits.
The Garda lemon was appreciated for its "medicinal" qualities, its "acidity", the "aromatic fragrance of its juice and peel", and its "freshness that lasts longer than any other". Its thin, shiny peel and rounder shape were also preferred. As a result, Garda lemons cost two to three times more than lemons from other areas of Italy.
According to Lodovico Bettoni, Limone grew the "perfect lemon". A letter dated December 10, 1846, from the Bentotti company to Giuseppe Della Casa, described the goods as being the best, and pointed out, "I am sending you lemons from Limone, which are the largest and have the best color."

The crisis
There were 6.59 hectares of citrus groves in Limone by the second half of the 19th century. The first harvest of 1874 amounted to 76,000 lemons, the 1876 harvest was "just one sixth of what was harvested in 1875", and the 1878 harvest was "scarce and less than the previous year." The 1879 harvest was " 50% that of an average harvest when the plants were not sick". An agricultural survey in 1879 estimated that production amounted to 550,000 lemons, 8,000 oranges, and 3 quintals of citrons.
At the turn of the 20th century, the citrus production in Limone began to suffer from the crisis caused by competition from southern regions (whose production costs were extremely low), by the discovery of synthetic citric acid, and also by the "high maintenance costs" of the lemon houses. The demand for Limone lemons, which remained stable for decades, began to diminish. Due to their particular structure, it would also have been impossible to reconvert the lemon houses into more economically viable businesses unless local inhabitants changed their mentality and were willing to make additional investments.
The price of lemons dropped. Bettoni's "commercial" lemons went from 5.77 Lire for 100 in 1892 to 2.31 Lire in 1897 and 1.83 Lire in 1908, while "bulk" lemons went from 2.94 Lire to 1.39 Lire and 1.554 lire. Clearly, the sector was in crisis!

Buy your Garda lemons here!
Construction on the Gardesana Occidentale road began in 1929. Centuries of isolation ended in October 1931 when the road was inaugurated and finally linked Limone with Gargnano and Riva del Garda. The future looked much brighter for the town.
Afterwards, tourism gradually increased, although it was still very limited and sporadic.
People thought up of new ways to sell the local lemons. Many set up tables and parked their carts along the road, beneath the towering cliffs and in the shade of olive and cypress trees, to display and sell lemons and oranges to people driving on the road.


Testo: Domenico prof. Fava 


Amidst the lemon house of Limone sul Garda
a historical and cultural journey

Prof. Domenico fava

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