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Bergamot: the sweet scent of Calabria

Bergamot: the sweet scent of Calabria

by Great Italian Chefs 17 April 2019

Anyone who has brewed a cup of Earl Grey knows the sweet scent of bergamot – this fragrant citrus is synonymous with Calabria, but what is it exactly and where did it come from? Join us as we explore the history of this knobbly Calabrian fruit.


Calabria’s jagged coastlines and striking landscapes are home to a host of unique culinary delights – amazing liquorice, Tropea onions and tartufo– one of the world’s greatest ice cream desserts, just to name a few. Of all these treasures though, by far the most famous and most important to the region is bergamotto di Calabria – Calabrian bergamot. This knobbly citrus fruit grows everywhere in Calabria, inhabiting sun-drenched groves all over the south coast and filling the air with its unforgettable perfume.

We’ve all heard of bergamot, but it remains a bit of a mystery outside of Calabria. Sometimes it’s yellow, other times it’s as green as a lime. It’s larger than an orange, but the skin is thin and aromatic and the flesh is far more bitter, like a grapefruit (although you wouldn’t want to eat a bergamot raw).

Just as mysterious is where the bergamot originally came from. Botanists still disagree on its origins – some believe it was cultivated as a lemon-bitter orange hybrid, but others believe bergamot is a species in its own right. Even if the latter is true, no one can agree on where it originally came from – some say China, others say Greece, Asia or even Berga in Spain, where Christopher Columbus supposedly found the knobbly fruit and later introduced it to the rest of Europe.

Regardless of its origins, bergamot has set up home in Calabria and is very much there to stay. Although bergamot also grows in Sicily, North Africa and South America, the quality simply isn’t the same – the heavy clay soil, long, hot summers and balmy Calabrian winters provide ideal conditions for bergamot trees, albeit with a catch. Bergamot trees on their own are not very hardy, certainly not resistant enough to survive even the mild winters in southern Italy. To combat this, farmers toil in the relentless heat every year to graft bergamot trees onto bitter orange rootstock, and then carefully nurse the trees through their first few years. Once a bergamot-bitter orange hybrid has survived its first year in Calabrian soil, it’ll live far longer than its counterparts elsewhere thanks to the hardiness of the bitter orange.

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Citrus groves cover large swathes of farmland around Reggio Calabria
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Many of them contain line upon line of bergamot trees, producing ripe green bergamots like these

Reggio Calabria itself – the region’s biggest city that sits right on the toe of Italy’s boot – is known as the ‘city of bergamot’, such is the importance of this iconic fruit in the area. In his famous Journals of a Landscape Painter in Southern Calabria, written in 1852, Edward Lear describes Reggio Calabria as ‘one of the most beautiful places on earth’, and marvels at ‘groves of orange, lemon, citron and bergamot… stretched from hill to shore as far as the eye can see on either side’. Reggio Calabria is a little more modern these days, but the importance of bergamot in these parts remains unquestionable. The south coast of Calabria produces ninety percent of the world’s bergamots, with a huge industry built around the extraction of bergamot oil – an essential ingredient in perfumes, teas, sweets and pharmaceuticals.

Calabrian locals started harvesting bergamot oil in the seventeenth century – they would cut open the fruit, scoop out the pulp, then press the rind against a natural sponge to gently extract the oils. It was a laborious process and produced bergamot oil in minuscule quantities. It wasn’t until Johann Maria Farina – the godfather of modern perfumery – created the first Eau de Cologne in 1709 that the fruit and its essential oil jumped to prominence. Italian-born Johann (also known as Giovanni) built his fragrance around the sunny, floral touch of bergamot oil. ‘I have found a fragrance that reminds me of an Italian spring morning, of mountain daffodils and orange blossoms after the rain,’ he wrote to his brother Jean-Baptiste, the year before he launched the Eau de Cologne – named after the town in which he had settled and founded his factory. It ushered in a new era of perfumery, but also launched the popularity of the humble bergamot into the stratosphere.

The oil remains a huge part of the perfume industry today, not just as part of the original Eau de Cologne but also in modern fragrances by the likes of Chanel, Dior, Tom Ford and countless others. Bergamotto di Reggio Calabria has lots of other applications too – it’s an essential element of Earl Grey and other tea blends, is used heavily in sweet-making and confectionery and has a wide array of uses in pharmaceuticals too. Bergamot oil has been part of local homeopathic treatment for centuries, used to cure skin ailments, stress, insomnia and coughs and colds.

Bergamot’s usefulness isn’t just limited to fragrances, though – you’ll find it used liberally in all sorts of food and drink across Calabria. Locals have been making marmalade with bergamot for generations, as well as a bergamot liqueur called Il Bergamino often drunk ice-cold and syrupy as a digestif. Bergamot is very en vogue in the world of pâtisserie too, where it lends a distinct Mediterranean note to cakes and pastries and lifts creamy desserts like tiramisu. Roam the streets of Reggio Calabria and you’ll find bergamot-infused honey, vodka and gelato lining the shelves of local stores, but if there’s one treat you should make a beeline for, it’s the incredible bergamot granita that keeps the city cool over the sweltering summer months. Sweet, sharp, and complex – it’s everything you could possibly want from this mysterious fruit.

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