Updated: Mar 4, 2021
What is the best thing about Sicily in the Winter? LEMONS! Terraced hillsides and sprawling groves of the bright yellow citrus fruit are scattered across Sicily like a fabulous yellow polka-dotted canvas. In addition to their use in Sicilian cuisine, lemons can be found in the design of fabrics, art and ceramics. Although the Amalfi coast may come to mind first when thinking of Italian lemons, 90% of the lemons grown in Italy actually come from Sicily! Why is that, you ask? Well, let’s have quick history lesson.
Lemons first arrived in Sicily around the 10th century AD. They were brought here by the Arabs who controlled the island for about two and a half centuries, from 827 until the Normans showed up in 1061. The hot sunny days and cool nights of Sicily’s Mediterranean climate are perfect for growing lemons, and the soil around Mount Etna is exceptionally porous due to its volcanic rock content. This leads to the deliciously tart but sweet flavor that is distinct to the lemons grown here. On behalf of all lemon lovers, I’d like to take a moment to thank the Arabs for bringing this sweet and sassy fruit to Sicily.
So what’s so special about the lemons in Sicily? Because not all lemons are created equal. In the U.S. I was used to seeing lemons that all looked the same in color, size and shape. Here, they come in a huge variety! They’re not all pretty, in fact, some of them are downright ugly. But that’s what I love about them! They are natural, organic, and fabulous!
Now let’s get technical. In Sicily there are three distinct types of lemons, and each one has its own unique characteristics and specialty of use. Whether you like them sweet or sour, big or small, bumpy or smooth, here is everything you ever wanted to know about Sicilian lemons, and what to do with them.
This is the most commonly grown type of lemon in Sicily. They are medium sized, very hearty, and produce flowers and fruit throughout the year. Femminello lemons are actually harvested four times a year, and each harvest has a different name. The spring crop is called Bianchetto, summer is Verdello, Autumn is called Primofiore, and the winter crop is Limone. There are quite a few sub-categories within this group, mostly based on where they are grown, which accounts for quite a bit of variety within the Femminello family. Typically, you can tell you’re looking at a Femminello lemon because both of the pointy ends protrude quite dramatically, as opposed to those commonly seen in the U.S. and other parts of Europe, which have a more rounded shape.
Femminello lemons are known for their high juice content, and lack of seeds in some varieties. Although the juice is widely used for cooking and to make lemon flavored drinks, the intense flavor of the rind is where the real flavor of the Femminello can be found. Zest from the rind is especially yummy for baking those Italian desserts and pastries we all love so much, as well as for flavoring gelato, granita and limoncello, that sweet Italian concoction that is like the nectar of the gods.
The Monachello lemon (also known as Moscatello) is similar in shape to the Femminello, but on steroids. It’s like the Incredible Hulk of Sicilian lemons. This bright and bumpy lemon is known for its long shape, pointed ends, and thick rind. Although they are quite juicy, they have less pulp and few seeds. This makes them ideal for juicing, considering you have a juicer big enough to handle them, or hands the size of a giant. Apparently a thicker rind reduces the amount of pulp in a lemon. Who knew? But the best part about the Monachello lemon is the flavor! The perfect balance of tart and sweet makes them an ideal ingredient for marinades, desserts or drinks.
The Interdonato lemon is grown along the Eastern coast of Sicily, and is technically a cross between a lemon and a citron. Its history has been traced back to the 1860’s, when a colonel bearing its namesake first created the hybrid. The Interdonato is a medium sized lemon, with the same pointed ends characteristic of the other Sicilian lemons; however, its rind is thinner and more smooth. Not as strong as the Femminello or Monachello, the Interdonato has a more delicate flavor and less citric acid. This makes it perfect for serving with seafood, flavoring cocktails, or even eating on its own! With its smooth and shiny skin, this one looks more like the lemons you might be used to in the U.S. It typically begins to ripen in the Fall and fully develops between November and February, making January prime season for picking!
Speaking of the citron, they sell those here too! Like the great grand-daddy of all lemons, the citron is one of the oldest varieties of citrus fruit in recorded history, and many of the current families of lemons can trace their ancestry back to it. Kind of like a citrus fruit version of 23andMe. Let me tell you, these things are HUGE! They can grow up to three times the size of what is considered a “normal” lemon. Like the other lemon varieties in Sicily, the citron (Cedro in Italian) has an elongated shape and pointy ends, especially the end that is opposite the stem. Although these giant cousins of the lemon can be found all year, they peak in the fall and winter months. For example, right now in January, they are all over the markets!
The interesting thing about Cedri (plural form of Cedro) is how little juice they actually have in them. Over half of the bulk of these citrus giants is made up of the rind and the white part, called the pith. It may not seem like the most exciting part of a lemon, but this is where the magic happens in a citron. The rind of the citron is extremely aromatic and rich in oils, and is commonly used for its fragrance in perfumes, cosmetics, aromatherapy, and even cleaning products! Popular recipes that involve using the pith and/or rind are lemon bruschetta, lemon salad, lemon risotto, candied citron, and a variety of drinks, liqueurs, and marmalades. I even chopped one up, pith and all, and used it to make some yummy Greek potatoes!
Now that we are all experts on Sicilian lemons, what to do with all this lemony goodness? Whether used for their scent, flavor, or as artistic inspiration, there’s no doubt that Sicilian lemons have a special place in the citrus hall of fame. I’m off to make some homemade lemon gelato, what about you?
If you enjoyed reading this, please check out my other articles on Sicily and my experience here!