Friday, May 8, 2015

When Life Gives You Lemons: Sorrento and Citrus Fruit

I have a lot of connections with Italian food.

First of all, my Grandma Fenton was Italian. I can still remember getting my hands dirty and making manicotti, stuffed shells, and lasagna with her as a kid. My hometown has a high Italian population. One of my best friends, Josette, has an extremely Italian family, and every once in a while, she has our group of friends over her house for dinner. I'll never forget the first time I went over there for a family dinner; I was loosening my belt for the courses that just kept coming. My first job was in a small, local take-out pizza joint with seven tables. My externship was in an upscale Italian Restaurant, where I worked my way up to being a main line cook. I took Italian as a language for two semesters at the CIA. Italian cuisine and culture has always been around me.

Let me just go back before I move forward. In high school, I was graced with the opportunity to take a trip to Paris and Italy. We worked our way south from Milan, to Florence, San Gimignano, Rome, Sorrento, and Capri. Although I loved that trip, I regret to admit that food wasn't the main focus of our itinerary.

What I love about Italian food is how widespread the cuisine varies between the different regions. Cuisine is derived from locality and seasonality; I support it. This helps local businesses and avoids deepening global warming through excessive imports. What you find in the northern regions near the Alps is a completely different story than what you will find on the southwest coast of Italy. Although I would love to write about every single moment of my Global Cuisines and Cultures Trip to Italy, that would be slightly obnoxious. So I'll just focus on one afternoon in Sorrento. Upon arriving where I had been nearly five years ago,  I couldn't believe what I missed the first time: lemons, oranges...and more lemons and oranges.

It was an overcast day; the rain was coming and going as it pleased. The tour bus pulled down a main street of Sorrento. I have never seen a citrus tree in person before...if I have, I don't remember it. All I remember of Sorrento the first time I went was the beautiful view of the island of Capri from just outside of where we stayed. I remember the pasta fagiola that was served at dinner, made with various noodles from the inn's cupboard. And while all of that was lovely, my seemingly scattered attention span missed the best part. This time, I was sure to stay on top of all things related to food.

Our guide, Carlotta, had given us a brief lesson on Sorrento's citrus fruit on the bus ride over. Geographically, Sorrento sits on the southwestern shore of Italy. Much of their cuisine revolves around seafood and citrus. Years ago, sailors and fishermen would come in from long periods at sea, carrying back the stink of fish, saltwater, and a Vitamin C deficiency known as scurvy. Scurvy was commonly widespread among fishermen because the fruits and vegetables (with Vitamin C) were perishable and wouldn't last more than a few days on journeys. As this deficiency became a major concern to Sorrento's seafood industry workers, citrus trees began to be harvested on a larger scale. Today, citrus fruits are not only used in recipes (such as lemon sauces, orange zested desserts, limoncello, etc.), but also in cosmetology--the essential oils are integrated into lotions, make up, and other products.

 Down the crowded sidewalks we strolled, searching for a bus to transport us off to lunch by the shore. As we walked, we passed dozens of trees that cradled fresh oranges and lemons. I knew that Carlotta had said that the fruit by the street was bitter, but like George, I was curious--I didn't hesitate to try an orange. Carlotta was right, they were bitter. Except at the same time, I've never had so much orange juice in my mouth at once. It was like one of those dramatic juice commercials, where a curling wave of fruit and juice sweep you away into bliss--but now, it was actually happening.

Stands were crowded with baskets of fresh citrus fruits. There were enormous lemons that were the size of grapefruit, and some smaller versions as well. The larger sfusati lemons can be very tart, however, their skins can be peeled and candied for dessert garnishes. The smaller sfusati lemons are used for limoncello, a digestive alcoholic beverage created by soaking the zests typically in rhubarb alcohol (which provides outstanding flavor for the product). We actually went to a limoncello factory later that day, and learned about the production process. What I didn't realize was that orange zests can also be made into a version of the drink, called arancello. Citrus fruits of this area are also incorporated into seafood dishes, such as the one we ate at lunch.

There we sat in the small seafood restaurant as the rain fell onto the sea's surface just outside the window. My fillet fell apart like butter--it was fresh, flaky and sweet-smelling. As I took my first bite, I tasted years of tradition; the lemon juice in the light, tangy sauce teased the back of my palate in a comforting, melodious sequence. That day, I had finally tasted the culture of Sorrento in my lunch. I was overjoyed--I finished the entire plate, eagerly hungry for more.

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