Chocolate, an Italian island, an organized crime ring and the humble lemon!
When we decided at Robins and Sons to expand our product range, little did we think that a chance attempt at experimentation with a bottle of flavour extract in my kitchen cupboard, would be a revelation that resulted in a bestseller.
I love lemons, so much so that through writing this article, I realise I’ve unwittingly managed to surround myself with all things ‘lemon’ on a daily basis. The fruit bowl of course (although I’m convinced they make the resident bananas ripen faster and go black), pictures on my kitchen wall, lemon scented candles in my living room, and far less glamorous but demonstrates the point nevertheless, I always buy lemon scented washing up liquid and bleach! Also, my all time favourite desserts are ‘Lemon Syllabub’ and my Mum’s ‘Lemon Drizzle Cake’, yum! So although I’d never tried lemon flavour chocolate before, the thought of adding a few drops to our already delicious Robins and Sons chocolate, wasn’t a huge leap of faith. Little did I know that our ‘Sicilian Lemon Crunch’ would be one of our bestsellers!
Sicily is the island situated off the southern coast of Italy
It has one of the most active volcanoes in the world – Mt Etna, has mild and wet winters, where the ground never freezes, and hot, dry summers, at a population of over 5 million people is the 4th most populated region in Italy and a melting pot of Sicily is a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities, including the original Italic people, the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Saracens, Normans, Spaniards, French and Albanians al contributing to the island's culture, numerous archaeological sites including some of the best preserved Greek temples.
Past and present volcanic eruptions have made the soil incredibly rich and fertile, which is also responsible for giving Sicilian lemons their wonderfully distinct and unique taste. In addition, the mild climate of warm days and cool nights is ideal for growing many crops, notably lemon trees which produce fruit all year round with harvesting taking place in autumn, Spring and the 'verdelli' between June and July.
Nowadays, India is the largest producer of lemons, closely followed by Mexico and China, however Italy still accounts for over 500,00 tonnes of lemons produced every year.
The ‘Shell of Gold’
The bay of Palermo used to be called the Conca d’Oro, the “Shell of Gold”, supposedly because the abundance of yellow citrus fruits make the landscape shine like gold, but also possibly due to the great wealth in the region due to lemons – especially after it was discovered that citrus fruits provided protection against scurvy. Through the ages, the fruits were sold in vast quantities to north European exploring and trading ships that passed through the Mediterranean, and to this day, the British Navy still carry enough lemons so that every sailor can have an ounce of juice a day.
But the huge wealth to be gained from lemon crops in this region, resulted in orchard owners having a great need to protect trees and fruits not only from the elements but from thieves, adapt at covertly stripping trees of their fruits and selling them. The lack of any type of decent law enforcement in the area at the time, meant it was impossible to police the vast acres of farms, but provided an ideal breeding ground for a mafia providing private protection to lemon producers.
If it were a business, the Mafia would be one of the largest and most successful in Europe. In a report from the Italian Minister of Home Affairs, it has been estimated that revenues from just the informal sector related to the Mafia amount to almost €180 billion. To date, the Italian Mafia is the most successful form of organised crime in Europe and certainly comparable to the Chinese, Japanese, Russian, and South American crime organisations in terms of business and research shows that the market for lemons is how the Sicilian Mafia got its start.
Their enduring presence in the area can also be attributed to the rather unique underground layout of many farms in this area. Citrus fruit trees were brought to Sicily by the Muslim invaders from North Africa in the 11th century A.D. They were skilled irrigation experts, and created gardens of citrus trees throughout Sicily with underground tunnels called Qanats to collect every available drop of water and irrigate the trees in the driest season. These qanats cover the entire Palermo area and some of the surrounding towns. These tunnels had particular value for the Mafia (who bought up the majority of the villas on the citrus farms on the Bay of Palermo), after all, what better way to evade Police turning up on your property with an arrest warrant, than by vanishing into your very own underground escape tunnel!
Sicilian Mafia and Hollywood
Hollywood has used the dramatic and beautiful Sicilian landscape as the backdrop in many films, arguably the most famous being the base setting for ‘The Godfather’ trilogy. However, during the filming of Oceans 12 near the town of Scopello in Sicily (a sequel to the Hollywood smash Oceans 11), the cast, including stars George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones, were closer to real life organised crime than they suspected.
Police claimed that members of a local Cosa Nostra clan had been tracked as they mingled with the stars on set.
A senior officer in Trapani on the North-west of the island claimed 3 members of the Castellammare del Golfo mafia family remained very close to the stars day and night, by making rounds of the set during the day, and the hotel where the stars were staying, at night. Judicial sources said they were suspected of seeking protection money from the production company.
Police in Trapani later announced 19 suspected clan members had been arrested after a two-year operation - though it was unclear whether the arrests became possible after an attempt to penetrate the film-making.
Benefits of Lemons
There are a multitude of health benefits associated with consuming lemons (far too many to mention in this article), including anti-viral properties - fighting flu / colds, anti-bacterial - just a few drops of lemon juice can eliminate 92% of microbes and bacteria on shellfish, in just a few minutes, a liver detoxifier, lowers high blood pressure, dissolves gall and kidney stones, high Vitamin C content that can neutralize free-radicals (cause of ageing and most types of disease), the list literally goes on and on. But we don’t even have to eat them to benefit - Sicily is one of the main producers of lemon essence which is sent all over the world. Scientists recently discovered a link between depression and our sense of smell, and found the citrus fragrances, lemons in particular, directly affected neurotransmitters in the brain. The aromas help boost serotonin, a feel-good hormone, and reduce levels of norepinephrine, a stress hormone.
As the latest round of supposed, newly discovered 'Superfoods' hits the press, I wonder when this little golden orb, who has given Robins and Sons, Sicily and the ultimate in organized crime – the Mafia, something in common, will get the status it deserves!