Citrons, the most ancient and aromatic citrus fruit, first came to Italy in 200 BC. It has almost no juice but the perfume and aroma of the peel and thick pulp make it perfect for candied fruit and other culinary uses, not to mention its importance for the Hebrew harvest festival Succoth.
Calabrian tour guide and gastronomical expert Nunzia Bruno and I chatted about Calabrian citrons, their history and how they're used.
What is a cedro or citron?
A citron (cedro in Italian) is the oldest known variety of citrus. By 200 BC the citron had already started to spread into Italy and murals in Pompeii show us that by 79AD the citron was already in the Naples area.
The citron tree, which grows about a meter to a meter and a half high, grows best in temperate Mediterranean areas like Sicily, Sardegna and coastal areas of Calabria like the Diamante area.
It's a delicate plant that suffers from freezing temperatures, and excessive heat and wind.
There are a few kinds of citrons: sweet, acid and pulpless. What is so outstanding about the citron is its delightful perfume and aroma. Most varieties of citron are almost entirely juiceless and it's instead the peel that's used.
Culinary uses of the citron
The peel is used to make a citron flavored liqueur. In the Diamante area it's known as “noble” limoncello because of its exquisite fragrance and aroma.
Candied citron peel is a key ingredient in Christmas panettone. Here's my recipe for panettone. I use a mixture of candied citrons and dried cranberries:
Ancient aromatic Calabrian citrons are used to make jams.
Try this Honey Citron & Ginger Tea.
A favorite fizzy beverage in Italy made with citrons is cedrata. It has a sweet and sour flavor and a luscious citron aroma. The Bottega di Calabria sells it.
Citron recipes by chefs
Many visitors to Rome head to Roscioli for some delicious Italian food. The Roscioli Bakery sells panettone made with citron. Roscioli also make a pesto, and maritozzi, using natural citron aromas.
One Diamante chef uses citron essential oil to add a green color to homemade fettuccine, and then prepares a sauce with mussels and walnuts.
Jamie Oliver makes a bruschetta with citron and arugula.
Calabrian born chef Francesco Mazzei makes a delicious crab, citron and arugula salad at his London restaurant, Ristorante Sartoria.
If you're interested in recipes from the Calabria region then My Calabria by Rosetta Costantino is the perfect book for you. Read (and listen) to my interview with Rosetta.
Check out these other specialty Calabrian foods like 'nduja and the Diamante peperoncino.
Non-culinary uses of the citron
Dried citron fruit and leaves are used as an insect repellent to protect clothing, carpets and tapestries from parasites.
The Latin name for citron is citrus medica - medicinal citrus - and in fact the fruit was first used for medicinal purposes.
The essential oils of the ancient aromatic Calabrian citrons are used to make shampoo and conditioners, for aromatherapy, and sometimes for perfumes.
One of the primary uses of the Diamante citron (etrog) is for the annual Feast of the Tabernacles (Sukkoth) ceremony. These citrons must grow on an ungrafted tree (whereas candied citrons often come from citrons grafted onto an orange tree). The citrons must be grown under the supervision of an appointed rabbi. Rabbis travel to Diamante from all of the world in late July to inspect the citron fruit to make sure each individual citron hasn't been punctured by a thorn or damaged in any way. Each fruit needs to fit in the palm of the hand. Read more about citrons and the Sukkoth ceremony here.
Books about citrons
Il Cedro di Calabria, by Enzo Monaco, (in Italian) talks about ancient aromatic Calabrian citrons and citron history, tradition, where the fruit is grown and citron varieties, plus wonderful photographs and 50 traditional and innovative citron recipes.
Another delightful book (published in English) is The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and Its Citrus Fruit, by Helena Attlee. The last chapter is dedicated to the citron.
Citron plantation tour and tasting
Nunzia Bruno offers a wonderful tour of a citron plantation along with a tasting of delicious ancient aromatic Calabrian citrons and citron products like the candied peel and liqueur. With Nunzia you can also explore the history of citrons used for Succoth.
Read about Nunzia Bruno here.
If you're interested in a bespoke weekend tour of a citron plantation & tasting, a visit to Diamante and its world famous hot peppers and murals, along with a cooking class let me know. Nunzia and I will offer you a delightful Calabrian culinary experience you're not likely to forget! Contact me here.
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