In view of Italy’s boot-like shape, this could be defined as the most precious tip of land on earth. Because it is only in a restricted area of 1500 hectares in the deep south of the peninsula, along the coast of Calabria washed by the Ionian Sea, that authentic PDO bergamot is produced: an essential oil extracted from the symbolic citrus fruit of the Reggio Calabria province. Almost 90% of the world’s bergamot production comes from here in Calabria.
What is bergamot?
It belongs to the family of citrus plants. Botanist disagree somewhat as to the origins of bergamot, which is probably a cultivated hybrid deriving from the bitter orange tree, but others claim it is a variety in its own right. The greenish yellow fruit is slightly smaller than a grapefruit with a finer skin. The evergreen plant with its fleshy leaves reaches a height of three or four metres and, in the months in which it blossoms, starting from the end of March, its white flowers dot the coastline and inebriate passing tourists with their scent.
The origins of bergamot
Early sources refer to a "bergamot grove" in Calabria as far back as 1750, but even earlier, in 1500, candied bergamot fruits were offered to Emperor Charles V who was passing through Rome. It is a generous plant: a rare essential oil is extracted from the skin of its fruit. It grows along the flat coastline protected by the hills from the wind blowing in from the Messina strait. The calcareous clay soil creates an ideal combination of various factors that enables some unique products to thrive. This is a “humid and temperate tropical” microclimate with an average of 300 days of sunshine in a year. All of this contributes to the growth of an extraordinary fruit which, together with the typical lemons of this coast, embody the true spirit of the South.
How is bergamot oil obtained
To fully grasp the value of the treasure concealed in bergamot skin, you just have to think that 200 kg of fruit is needed to extract one kg of essence. Each plant is a small miracle requiring precise farming techniques and infinite patience: it derives from grafting three bergamot branches onto a bitter orange plant, after which it has to remain in a pot for one year before being transferred to the ground and left for a further two years. In the third year it will start to yield fruit. The bergamot tree needs to be protected from low temperatures but it will reward your efforts with 25 years of productiveness. The skins are cold pressed to extract tiny sachets rich in essential oils. In the past, the cold pressing operation used to be carried out by hand and absorbed by natural sponges but, today, machinery is used to speed up production.
The uses and properties of bergamot
As well as being a basic ingredient for most eau de toilettes, it is also used as a fixative in perfumery. However, owing to its traditional use in this industry, for a long time it was considered to be toxic. No one had ever thought of it as being an edible substance. In the last decade it has been introduced in cooking and its health-giving property as a powerful ally against cholesterol has been rediscovered.
Its use in cooking
Bergamot is widely used, especially in pastry making, where it confers a Mediterranean touch when used to aromatize doughnuts, cakes, sponges and creamy desserts. Moreover, it gives an interesting twist to salads and, when grated on fillets of fish, can completely transform an otherwise banal recipe. Another way to employ bergamot is in the preparation of a liquor which, in its turn, can be used to sprinkle on pan-fried fish or meat to give a touch of bitter sweetness to savoury recipes. The quickest recipe of all? Marmalade. Remove peel and pith from 1 Kg of organic bergamots and blend them for 15 seconds. Add 700 g of sugar and boil for around 30 minutes. Pour the marmalade, still hot, into jars and seal them hermetically.
Many celebrity chefs have experimented using this citrus fruit. Starred chefs such as Fabio Pisani and Alessandro Negrini from the Milanese restaurant Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia, for instance, have created a dessert that enhances it marvellously: tiramisù with yogurt and mascarpone cream, coffee flavoured biscuits, bergamot aromatized ricotta and honey candied capers from Pantelleria.