Bergamot, an extraordinary fruit


Identikit for an extraordinary fruit?

The SCIENTIFIC NAME is Citrus Bergamia Risso, from the Rutaceae FAMILY. It has been cultivated in CALABRIA since the mid-eighteenth century. The PLANT is a very strange fruit tree; in fact, it produces hesperides that are too bitter to be able to constitute a regular food, raw or cooked, and its economic importance derives almost exclusively from the essence.

ANSWER: It’s the bergamot!


The origin is unknown and the botanical collocation controversial (one of the many citrus hybrids according to some, a mutation of the melangolo or lime according to others… but in the meantime it has reached the status of species); Italy, through Calabria, has almost the world monopoly. In fact, more than 80% of the production of bergamots comes from the lower Ionian of Reggio: a coastal arc that goes from Scilla to Monasterace, passing through places such as, among others, Villa San Giovanni, Melito di Porto Salvo, Bova, Branca Leone, Piati , Gerace, Siderno, Gioiosa and Roccella Ionica, Riace.

It seems that here, at the extreme tip of the boot (Melito is the southernmost municipality of peninsular Italy), the plant was already known in the sixteenth century, but the first specialized plant of which documentation exists dates back to 1750 on the coast of Reggio Calabria. The name, probably from the Turkish begarmundi (“pear of the lord”), would suggest a provenance from Asia Minor; the legends on the subject are more numerous than usual, including the imaginative hypothesis of a Bergamo origin. But it is not excluded that it is an ecotype that developed on site.

It is a tree three to four meters tall, with branches in which rudimentary thorns are sometimes found in the axils of the leaves, shiny and leathery. The numerous hermaphroditic flowers, mostly grouped in racemes, are white and very fragrant. The fruit, slightly larger than an orange, ranging in color from green to yellow depending on the degree of ripeness, has a peel with a floral, fresh and penetrating scent, very rich in essential oils. The pulp, divided into a number of segments ranging from 12 to 15, with few seeds, provides a very acidic and bitter juice.


Sun for 300 days a year, hot summers without rain, mild winters, very rainy early spring and late autumn: this is the climate of southern Calabria overlooking the Ionian, evidently ideal for cultivation. Bergamot tolerates heat well, not excessive or scarce rainfall and sudden changes in temperature: below 10 °C, development stops and, if young, the plant dies. As for soils, it prefers medium-textured, deep, fertile and well-drained ones, with a pH between 6.5 and 7.5.

The deep green


The plant to be cultivated is obtained by grafting onto bitter orange (melangolo) or trifoliate (poncirus). It has an average productive life of 25 years: it begins to bear fruit at 3, reaches its maximum at 8. It needs water, as well as in the first years of growth, in spring and autumn: but on the Ionian coast the seasonal rains are enough, so that the Irrigation is only necessary in very dry summers. As and more than ever, water stagnation must be avoided, otherwise the root system will rot.


On the Calabrian coast, bergamots are harvested between November and January.


In commercial plants, bergamots spend the first year of their life in pots (where they must remain if cultivated at an amateur level in the internal Apennine regions or in the North), then they are buried in the most sunny and bright position possible, at 4-5 meters away from each other. To shelter them from the strong winds that blow from the Strait all year round, dense and tall rows of pine are planted in the Reggio area on the side towards the sea.


Like all citrus fruits, the fruit contains high quantities of vitamins (C, A, B), mineral salts, polyphenols and other antioxidant elements. If you manage to drink it, the juice is refreshing, invigorating, eupeptic. In popular medicine, the peel was used to combat respiratory diseases and for its analgesic, healing, antiseptic, bactericidal and vermifuge properties. Further, according to recent studies, the extract would be able to keep the “bad” cholesterol at bay and increase the “good” one.

The fruit on the tree


The rules are practically superfluous, since fresh bergamot is a rarity: if “it comes into your possession, it is advisable not to keep it in the refrigerator but in a cool place (ideal temperature 8-10 °C). dry and dark.


Bergamot almost never arrives on the table, also because it can be purchased sporadically in retail, only from producers who keep some for self-consumption, selling the bulk of the harvest to the industry for transformation into essence.

The curious can experiment with it in juices, in wedges in salads, as a condiment for meat and fish – instead of lemon -, as a corrective for drinks (some well-known black tea blends are flavored with bergamot), zest with which to decorate cocktails. Attempts to encourage fresh consumption appear to have had some success in the “Italian ice cream parlors” of various countries around the world.

The main use concerns the essences extracted from the peel, but also from the flowers, leaves and younger branches. Obtained by mechanical pressing, with peeling machines defined for centuries as “Calabrian”, bergamot essential oil is a precious product: two quintals of fruit are needed to obtain one kilo. The one worked on the Ionian coast of Reggio, to which the DOP (protected designation of origin) has been recognised, is exported all over the world. The main, and oldest, destination is the perfume industry, as a component of cologne and toilet waters, to which it gives, by fixing the aromatic bouquet , a fresh and citrus note sometimes considered essential, they also obtain drugs and phytotherapeutic remedies . Complementary essential oil products they are neroli (distillate of flowers, for soaps and moisturizing creams) and petit-grain (distillate of twigs and leaves, for perfumes and bath foams). Vaguely gastronomic applications have the aromas extracted from the rind, used in liqueurs and confectionery, sometimes also to “season” drinks, baked sweets, pastes, olive oils.


In world production, Calabria is followed at a great distance by some southwestern American states (California, Arizona, Nevada) and by Brazil, Argentina, Israel. But in Calabria bergamots are different from those grown in those territories, because in this region they have been growing for centuries along about eighty kilometers of the Ionian coast. From the peel of foreign fruits, which has a certainly lower oil content, a less valuable essence is obtained – reinforced” in poor-quality perfumes with further synthetic substances. The lobbies of the European chemical industry have attempted to multiply their business, proposing to reduce the concentration of essential oils by law from 12 to 0.1%, which would have favored foreign fruits and meant the end of the DOP product of Reggio Calabria.Fortunately, the great perfume houses – Chanel, Dior, Guerlain – agreed they sided with the Calabrian consortium: once the attack was thwarted, the story confirmed in some respects that the “real” bergamot is only an Italian citrus fruit, indeed an exclusive Calabrian one.

The white flower of Bergamot


The Reggio coast bathed by the Ionian Sea is often called the Riviera dei Gelsomini, a term that includes the geographical denomination of Locride. Further, the territory hands down the memory of a thriving production such as that of bergamot. In fact, throughout the province of Reggio Calabria, especially along the coastal strip between Punta Stilo (municipality of Monasterace) and Capo Spartivento (municipality of Palizzi), from the 1920s to the middle of the last century, both bergamots and jasmines grow, the latter beautiful climbing plants of Caucasian origin, whose flowers were mainly destined for the perfume industry (evidently the “smelling” vocation of the area is not limited to bergamot!). At the harvesting, manual, almost only women and girls (the jasmine groves) were employed, the product was worked on site and the essence, together with that of the bergamot, was exported halfway around the world, above all to France, constituting an important source of income for residents. An activity that has practically disappeared, even if in some towns in the area there are still some laboratories where oil is still extracted from jasmine petals.



CHARACTERISTICS: it is the most cultivated variety on the 1500 hectares of the Calabrian coastal area planted with Bergamot, covering 75% of the production. It is a medium-large, pear-shaped fruit, very rich in essential oils.

RIPENING : November-January


FEATURES: Slender, fast-growing tree, more productive than others but not very long-lived, with relatively high thermal and water requirements. Medium-small spherical fruit with smooth skin

RIPENING November-January


FEATURES: Very vigorous and long-lived variety, resistant to wind, characterized by a strong alternation of production. Large and wrinkled fruit

RIPENING November-January

Microhistory of Norman cuisine in Calabria


The Sila Greca represents the northern part of the Calabrian plateau of the Sila.

Inside, in a picturesque valley crossed by the Trionto, stands Longobucco, a small town in the province of Cosenza which keeps alive the memory of its Norman foundation. The village is located between the peaks and woods of the Sila National Park.

Longobucco has known ups and downs: in the 1950s the craft activities of working with fabrics, metals, wood and jewelery thrived here. Prosperity then declined and in the 1970s the main part of its inhabitants and businesses partly disappeared. A trace of the Norman food and wine past still remains in a local meat-based delicacy, which will be discussed below.

Valley of Trionto


The sacchetto (little bag) of Longobucco is a tasty pig’s trotter. Longobucco, a typical Norman village, is known for this delicious roulade made from the meat of the front leg of the pig. The pork is minced and stuffed into its own rind.

The name sacchetto (a little bag), in fact, derives from the shape of the rind, which stitches a package of black pig from Calabria, a rustic, lean meat that comes from a skilful grazing of black piglets in suitable pastures.

The Sacchetto of Longobucco

The black pig was, until the 1920s, extremely widespread in various areas of Calabria, then a slow decline in local zootechnics, increasingly linked to the choice of more productive breeds, brought the Longobucco black pig almost to extinction. In 2007 alone there were less than 500 specimens and today various projects have been implemented to try to protect this pig.

From a gastronomic point of view, the sacchetto of Longobucco is traditionally eaten in slices, accompanied by the typical side dishes of the Greek Sila, such as mushrooms in oil, steamed vegetables or legumes. The cured meat has a compact body, has more or less lively colors and is delicately scented with spices, aromatic herbs and other smells.

To prepare the little bag of pig’s trotter, the front leg of the pig is used, in the part between the foot and the thigh, and all the muscle is extracted, leaving the rind intact. The meat is cut into small pieces, sprinkled with salt and black peppercorns, put back in the outer crust and sewn with kitchen twine.

Due to the leathery consistency of the rind, a cobbler’s awl is actually used to sew the bag. The bag is then cooked in the same pot used to cook pork frittole (local name given to the so-called pork cracklings). After about three hours of cooking, the cured meat is drained and placed while still hot in an earthenware pan, into which the fat obtained from cooking the frittole is poured; thus prepared, the sack can rest for a month in a dry and cool environment.

The sacchetto of Longobucco is an artisanal preparation and the product is not currently for sale, because it is made in the family or in selected restaurants.



Even with lights and shadows, the Normans brought Catholicism to Calabria as early as the 11th century, wresting this land from both the Muslim Arabs and the orthodox Byzantines. The not entirely positive judgment is linked to the fact that the Normans were fierce warriors, with a past of mercenaries and marauders and to the fact that, while bringing aid to the Roman pontiff throughout Southern Italy, in the 11th century, sacked Rome (destroying some important churches of Latin Christianity).

The first architects of the Norman conquest in Calabria were the two brothers Robert of Hauteville, called the Guiscard,  and Roger of Hauteville, followed by Roger II of Sicily. The first two leaders were particularly attached to the French Benedictine monks and, therefore, brought several abbots and monks from Normandy (northern Atlantic part of present-day France), as well as playing an authentic religious role themselves in the conversion of the subject peoples.

From that moment on, the Normans were also able to have a profound impact on the social and economic level, thanks to their fiefdom of Calabria and Sicily which saw the rise of all the arts in these lands. Under the Norman dominators, among other things, the recovery of the now lost Greek-Latin world began, through the substantial cultural legacies of Greek texts (of art, science and philosophy) that the Normans received from the Byzantines and the Arabs (still present in a substantial number in the invaded lands).

Norman Basilic in Roccella


Robert of Hauteville, named the Guiscard, arrived in Calabria approximately in 1047 initially living in the Scribla area, in the current territory of Spezzano Albanese; subsequently, he managed to occupy the city of San Marco.

The Norman Warriors

In 1048, after having repressed a revolt in the Valley of Crati which had broken out against the Lombard prince Guaimario IV, Robert the Guiscard conquered and placed under his control the centers of Bisignano, Cosenza, Martirano, Montalto, Rossano and the Plateau di Sant’Eufemia. A few years later his younger brother Roger joined him; and together they carried out, since 1056, a systematic plan of conquest of Calabria, coordinating everything right from the city of San Marco.

Castle of Gerace

In 1057, upon the death of the Norman duke Umfredo, Roberto took possession of his Apulian territories, also increasing his prestige within the Norman cavalry. In the same year, the Altavilla brothers besieged various Lombard and Byzantine castles in the current Cosenza area, conquering them all, one by one; subsequently they conquered Catanzaro and put the surroundings of the current Reggio area to fire and sword, but without being able to conquer Reggio. The Normans conquered Reggio only in 1059, where Roberto was acclaimed duke by his army.

San Marco Norman Tower

Subsequently, it was the turn of the conquest of Squillace, the last Byzantine enclave to fall into Norman hands. With the fall of Squillace, Robert Guiscard was officially proclaimed Duke of Calabria, Puglia and Sicily by Pope Leo IX in Melfi.

Finally, the Altavilla brothers divided up the territories of Calabria in the castle of Scalea, where they signed the famous “Pact of Scalea“. The northern part of the region, up to Mount Intefoli near Squillace, fell to Roberto, the southern part to Roger. In 1085, upon Robert’s death, Roger obtained total control over southern Calabria, by concession of his nephew Bohemond, after this had been helped by Roger himself in the succession struggle against his brother Roger Borsa. The region remained under the Norman descendants until the advent of the Swabians, who inherited the territories with Federico II, son of Costance of Hauteville.

The Normans left the administrative management of the Calabrian settlements to the local populations, in exchange for hostages and submission. And to control the territory, they erected various strongholds and castles throughout the region, often adapting pre-existing Byzantine fortresses. This happened in Aiello, Catanzaro, Cosenza, Crotone, Gerace, Maida, Martirano, Miletus, Nicastro, Reggio, San Marco, Santa Severina, Scalea, Scilla and Stilo. In particular, due to its central position in the region,  Miletus was chosen by Roger as the capital of the Norman state in Calabria, as well as as a center of spiritual irradiation of religious conversion, implemented through the Benedictines. Roger II, the Norman king of Sicily, was also born in Miletus (December 22, 1095).

From Miletus and Calabria the Normans then continued their legendary liberation of Sicily from the Arabs. In fact, in 1064, starting from here, with the help of local contingents, Roger undertook the conquest of the island.

Trinità of Miletus


The abbey of Sant’Eufemia Vetere was commissioned by Robert the Guiscard in 1062 as a mausoleum for the souls of his loved ones, while the Trinità di Miletus was commissioned (between 1063 and 1066) by his brother Roger of Hauteville, later Count of Calabria and Sicily, as a tomb for himself and for his wife Eremburga (the latter’s sarcophagus is now on display in the Miletus museum).

The abbey of Sant’Eufemia was built by a Norman monk, Robert de Grandmesnil. In fact, it is believed that it was the Benedictine religious themselves who designed the churches in which they were appointed abbots or bishops. It was a rule in the Benedictine order that architecture should also be studied among the various branches of the art and the abbots had the obligation to trace the plan of the churches and secondary buildings that they were called to direct.

Robert de Grandsmenil, who arrived in Calabria from Normandy in 1062 with 11 monks, was the first abbot of Sant’Eufemia and under his control were the abbeys of Venosa and Miletus, governed by two French priors. It seems that Abbot Grandsmenil was forced to flee from Normandy to Calabria due to his political intrigues against Duke William; called “the conqueror” after the 1066 Battle of Hastings, in which he subdued England.

Castle of Stilo