I blame the woman down in our local general store. She’s the one that told us to mix the potting compost we were buying with an equal amount of good old garden soil. But, living in a first floor apartment, we have no access to soil. Hence the need for the bag of compost. The only way to get any real soil was to ask the neighbours.
One Saturday, we spotted Signor Cioffi planting onions and potatoes in his plot behind the apartment and my wife went down to have a quick word. An hour later, having been roped in to help with the potato planting, she was still chatting away. Little did I know that she was offering my services for a hard day’s labour. I’d been ‘volunteered’ to help with the lemon harvest. One bright morning a few days later, I donned some old clothes and joined the Cioffis in their agrumeto or lemon orchard, just a couple of hundred metres from the house.
Signora Cioffi started to explain what I was to do. I looked at her quizzically. I didn’t understand.
‘In Italian,’ her husband chastised her. ‘Not Neapolitan.’ Now, I can cope with Italian, but the two languages are different enough to cause me trouble when faced with the local dialect. I realised I was probably the first non-Neapolitan speaker to have ever picked lemons from those trees. I felt privileged.
It’s not so much Naples that is famous for lemons, but the area a little further south – around Sorrento, the Amalfi Coast and the island of Capri. Indeed, the two main local varieties of lemons: the ‘Limone di Sorrento’ and the ‘Limone Costa d’Amalfi’, were given PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) status by the EU in 2000 and 2001 respectively.
In this region, many gently sloping hillsides are covered in pergolati’, frames made from the long straight poles of chestnut trees. In turn, the pergolati themselves are covered, especially in the winter, to protect the fruit and flowers from any frost and hail. (‘Look how beautiful the lemon tree is,’ Signor Cioffi told me. ‘It’s the only tree that has both flowers and ripe fruit at the same time.’).
More and more commonly hese days, the pergolati are covered with black nylon netting which can easily be rolled back in the summer to allow the heat and sunlight to reach the developing fruits. Traditionally, however, wooden lattices were used. In the summer, to save having to lift them up above tree-height again before the winter, they are left in piles, like hundreds of beehives, on top of the pergolati.
Getting down to work
After being shown the ropes (did you know lemon trees have spines?) I was left my to my own devices with a bucket, a pair of secateurs and half an acre of lemon trees. All I had to do was select the largest ones. I could even leave a bit of stalk and a few leaves, Signora Cioffi had explained, as these lemons were going to the fresh market. If they were going to make limoncello, the local liqueur, then I would have had to make sure the stalk was cut flush with the fruit so as to avoid damage to the bucce or skins of the fruits.
Once my bucket was filled, I emptied it into one of the crates that another ‘hired hand’ ferried back to the sheds. This involved man-handling a delicately balanced wheel-barrow, piled precariously high with crates, down a one-in-four slope and along a rough track – an act that involved not only a lot of sweat, but also great dexterity. I had visions of run-away wheel-barrows and overturned crates, and was glad I wasn’t asked to ‘drive’. Just sticking to the picking was thirsty enough work. My co-workers had started work before me and weren’t about to stop for a tea-break. I soldiered on.
Perhaps dehydration started me day dreaming. The spring sun was shining and the black netting slung above the trees seemed to polarise the light, turning the clear sky deep, deep blue. Looking up into the canopy, the bright, yellow lemons added a delicious contrast to the scene.
I was enjoying myself. ‘Beats working,’ I was thinking. Every now and again, especially as I moved from one tree to the next, a blackbird would sound its alarm call. High above, perched on the tips of the tallest branches, male serins, small green and yellow finches, proclaimed their reproductive fitness to the local hen birds with their territorial twitterings. There was music in the air.
And all the time I was being charmed by the scent of the lemon flowers.
The only downside was that the lemons were all growing above head height. Although this meant lift- ing my face to the warming rays of the sun, it also meant that whenever I tugged at a lemon, or stretched through some branches to reach one, grit would show- er down around me. But there was a plus-side to this too. When I wanted to wipe a mote of dust from my eye, I had to lift my hands to my face, and I noticed that my hands, as they passed in front of my nose, were lemon-scented. Bellissimo!
After four hours work, and an estimated 650 kilos of lemons harvested, I turned to look back at the trees. As this was one of the first picks of the year, we’d only taken the largest fruits, leaving the others to grow and ripen. Despite my sweat and toil, it seemed like we’d done nothing. But I secretly hoped I’d performed well enough to be invited back to do another day’s work when the next order came in.