L'Oro Verde della Calabria Greca: il Bergamotto
The Citrus Bergamia Risso is bergamot, a random fruit-bearing hybrid of cedar, mandarin, lemon and orange that grows on the southern Ionian coast, thanks to the local microclimate and soil. More specifically this tree grows on a one-hundred-kilometre stretch of the Ionian coast between Villa San Giovanni and Stilo, producing a citrus fruit whose essence is so strong, that it is used to fix the bouquets of the world’s best perfumes.
It seems that the name derives from the combination of the words pergamena [parchment] and motta [motte] meaning, therefore, something like defence of parchment. It can not be exluded either that the term may be associated with Bey Armudi, that is, the lord’s peartree, given its resemblance to the bergamot pear, a juicy, tart and fragrant variety of that fruit.
The first documentary reference to bergamot can be traced back to 1536, when, at a banquet given by Cardinal Campeggi, in honour of Charles V, Bergamini Confetti [bergamot-flavoured bon-bons] were served. A sorbet made from cream, flavoured with bergamot, was invented shortly after that in Florence, by Bernardo Buontalenti for Cosimo de ‘Medici.
Inspired by the peasants of the Straits of Messina, who used the peel of this fruit to produce essential oil with flavouring, purifying and healing properties, Procopio dé Coltelli created a special water of bergamot which he introduced into the court of Louis XIV of France. Versailles fell in love with this perfumed water right from the start, since it was effective against the bad smells of the time. At the same time, a merchant from Novara, Gian Paolo Feminis, realised that the oil of this citrus was capable of fixing other fragrances, thus revealing its efficacy as an ingredient in the production of perfume. Having emigrated to Germany, in 1680, he produced a bergamot balm, aqua admirabilis, from which, in 1704, aromatic water was patented and given the name of the German city in question. And so, eau de Cologne was born. From then on, bergamot became and has remained one of the major bases of the perfume-production industry. Such was the demand for it that, from 1750 on, the coast around Reggio Calabria was covered in bergamot groves, to meet the growing demand. In the nineteenth century the fruit and its by-products entered the food and beverage market. In the 1830’s, the English tea company, Twining, launched its most famous Earl Grey Tea, flavoured with bergamot and falsely claiming its Chinese origins. Shortly afterwards the Calabrian citrus was used to create the famous Bergamotes de Nancy while many English, US and French producers of liqueurs followed suit. The industrialisation of the process by which to extract the essential oil from bergamot peel began in 1844 thanks to the invention of an extraction machine by a Reggio Calabrian called Nicola Barillà. Before that the essence was squeezed from the peel by hand, to be absorbed by natural sponge, placed in special containers called concoline.
Machinery, old and modern manufacturing processes, along with interesting old photographs are displayed at the Museo del Bergamotto a Reggio Calabria [Museum of Bergamot, Reggio Calabria], which stands behind the more famous National Archaeological Museum of Magna Grecia. Today about 650 farms are involved in the production of bergamot, employing 7,000 workers and availing of 1,300 hectares of citrus groves which, in 1999, received the D.O.P seal. Its uses range from the cosmetics to the food industry, where Bergamot is used to add a unique flavour to confectionary, liqueurs and soft drinks. Even the peel, reversed and cured, is used to make pouches for snuff and pipe tobacco.
Its use in the pharmaceutical industry is quite recent because it has been discovered that its properties can be used to treat high blood sugar levels and cholesterol, thanks to the presence of two flavonoids, called brutieridin and melitidin. By taking one or more 500- milligram doses of extract of bergamot people with high cholesterol have increased their “good” cholesterol, while reducing the “bad”.
Text by Pasquale Faenza