BOOK REVIEW: HELENA ATTLEE’S – THE LAND WHERE LEMONS GROW

Books tend to pile up by my bedside – maybe they do for you too, but my book stack won’t ever make it on a house tour on Apartment Therapy – it’s more of a pile, a pile that evolves slowly over winter. Why it;s a pile, I’ll never know, for I only have an hour or so night to read before I can’t keep my eyes open, which is probably one reason why it takes me so long to write a review on a book that I’ve bee asked to write a review on. Call it a fault, or a good trait, but I am one who really wants to read a book before I write about it. Believe me, I do get books that don’t merit a completely positive review (more often than not, in fact). Not that any book is THAT bad, for usually there is something nice to say – a good book for a beginner perhaps, a book full of inspirational images, more often than not, I lose interest in a book before I actually finish it, which tells me that something is wrong.

Helena Attlee’s book about citrus entitled ‘THE LAND WHERE LEMONS GROW – THE STORY OF ITALY AND ITS CITRUS’ was offered to to me by the publishers first in late 2014, for one reason or another, I declined – I really don’t know what I imagined the book to be about, perhaps just another book that would bumble on about the virtues of Lemoncello, how it helped the author find love in the Amalfi coast with a dark haired stud after her devastating divorce (or something like that) anyway, I could surely wait for the movie.

Then, ( OK- I can’t believe that I am admitting this, but… I read a review about this very book in Hortus or Garden’s Illustrated, I don’t remember right now, but it’s late a night and I am writing this in bed and too lazy to go look for it – but this review was not just gushing with praise, it was written so eloquently that I felt as if I needed to get the book as soon as I could find the email from the publisher, but alas, I deleted it.

The following weekend, I received a reminder email from the same publisher, and I jumped on it. It’s rare for a book to capture my mind for such a long period of time, but this one is such a book, on so many levels ( and there are many), From the moment when I received this book in the mail, I was impressed. First, It was a hard cover book ( it seems to have been published in the UK first, and now in the US by a different publisher. I get it,the publishing industry works this way. Before I even read on page, I took note of the fine paper stock (a particularly nice uncoated rag stock used for the text was refreshing – don’t laugh, in a world of digital books, this is a lost art. The paper quality and type is as important to me as the content it, as I appreciate the feel and weight of a book), and it had – of all things, a colophon. This told me that my book was typeset in12pt over 14.75pt Dante MT std. Thank you Milton Keynes ( the typesetter in England). Clearly, this is a publisher who cares about books.

As I said earlier, there are books which end up not being completely read, and although this is not uncommon for someone such as me who has a nasty habit of not following things in the first place, I should add the caveat that there are some rare cases when a book is so good, that I actually slow down the reading process. Just so that I can delay the ultimate end. Books to me are experiences, and this book is such a book – an experience .

As a citrus grower myself ( I mean, there are about ten potted trees in the greenhouse here), I at first felt as if I could not relate to the content of such a book – after all, it’s not as if I live in southern Italy or southern California even. Far from it, but after a few chapters, I not only quickly learned about some insanely curious citrus fruits, their long and interesting history with humans, but I also realized that many of these fruit were raised in the same manner I am growing mine – in large tubs, kept under glass in the colder months, and brought out into the garden for the summer. This is a book that will teach you much – you will be inspired to make notes, lists, to jot down facts and to perhaps even try a recipe or two.

I enjoy books more when they don’t have too many images – and this book has only a few maps, which by themselves seem not to connect to much of the content in each chapter, so I can easily dismiss them. The authors language paints such a visceral scene, that each night I find myself either lost on coast of Amalfi picking bitter lemons or cruising along the shores of Lago de Garda searching for rare lemon varieties in a thunderstorm – and, I will attest to being caught in a number of thunderstorms on that very lake, and in the hills behind it searching for the elusive golden yellow primula auricula that grows there, so once again, this books gets into my head and I am lost in its pages. Pure delight.

A SELECTION OF SOME OF THE VARIOUS RARE CITRUS WE GROW IN THE GREENHOUSE. I SUPPOSE WE COULD CALL IT A LEMONAIA, BUT IT SEEMS A BIT PRETENTIOUS, WE CAN LEAVE THAT FOR THE REAL ON AT THE TOWER HILL BOTANIC GARDEN.

Through Attlee’s writing, I have learned so much more about some of my own plants – about the many large citrons that we raise in pots here in the greenhouse, which I have been collecting for the past few years – their flesh either crispy like an apple or soft and sweet like a guava, but each coming with a long biblical history of giant football shaped Etrog, to the many different types of finger lemons, which had many rare selections at one time, grown and collected by the Medici’s to name a few. I have to admit, the citrus fruit is fascinating, and as this is a book which clearly involved plenty of research which I can only imagine occurred over the authors many years of living in Italy, it has a unique personal touch – clearly not a book which was researched on the Internet. I know, because I have made lists of many of the fruit and locations listed in this book, and this information is not easy to track down.

This is book which has not only convinced me to visit tally again, it has caused me to make lists of placed to visit and worst/best of all, made lists of citrus varieties that I just have to search out for both the home greenhouse, and if only to discover and taste just once. A book that goes far beyond Lemoncello and mandarins, which is frankly what I had at first expected, Attlee’s book has me dreaming of citron blossoms raw in salads but maybe not for the recipe for Tortoise Pie and other delights from the 1500’s like porcupine, cow’s udders or stag’s testicles.

THIS ETROG CITRON MARMALADE MADE ME VERY POPULAR WITH MY FRIENDS AT WORK LAST YEAR. IT SMELLED LIKE ORANGE BLOSSOMS, YES, I ADDED A FEW.

Still, when a author is intelligent, curious and informed about the history and story of food and plants, the read can be so delightful. Here, Attlee’s passions seem to not only cross and blend, but her curiosity and passions keeps her searching deeper for connection, always in search for the true story. Her drive to learn herself, helps her uncover each and every nuance about something which many might find boring (like a sour lime, 16th century wax models of distorted fruit from the Medici’s, what the Pope like to eat in the morning) but what an ordinary author could easily overlook or dismiss, she dives in deeper. This is exactly the sort of book I can get lost in forever, which sounds a little silly when it’s just a book about citrus, yet my point it this is really a book about so much more. It’s book about the history, ethnobotany, cultural quirks and curiosities, a book about the kitchen, about the food we once ate and the food we should eat more of, it’s about fragrance, travel, art and creativity. Mostly though, like many things Italian, it’s about living a life well. And who doesn’t want that.

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