Bergamot Country

Most of the world’s manufactured perfumes and toilet waters depend for their base oils on eleven square miles of fruit gardens fringing the extreme tip of Italy’s toe, at Reggio in Calabria. In that one charmed spot the bergamot orange, most delicate of citrus plants, thrives. It demands a clay chalk alluvial soil, frequent irrigation, and strong sunlight. A high wind or a rain shower can be fatal to the flowering tree, and so can sea mist — although the bergamot loves sea air. It will not survive outside a 39 degree to 114 degree Fahrenheit range, or where temperatures fluctuate. Satisfy all these requirements and still the plant takes ill and dies — everywhere but at Reggio. From the Ivory Coast, where the French are currently experimenting, to Formosa, where Japanese arboriculturists have been trying to grow it for years, no bergamot has ever flourished.

The fruit is of mysterious origin and suspect genealogy: a hybrid (something like orange crossed with lime, to the layman’s eye) which came from nowhere and whose parentage cannot be determined; a mongrel intruder which was growing wild in the Reggio orchards no earlier than 1660. (Citrons were known to the Romans, the lemon appeared in Italy in the seventh century, the bitter orange in the tenth, and the sweet orange in the fourteenth.) Until the powerful odor of its rind attracted perfumers’ attention, it was a useless freak.

In the eighteenth century acqua admirabilis was all the rage: a toilet water which, marketed under the name of eau de cologne, from the city in which it was prepared, vanquished all competitors and never looked back. Its inventor had taken bergamot essence for his base. It had for the perfumers of the Pompadour and Du Barry era the magical property of combining smoothly with other “essential oils”; of, as a French chemist admitted, “bringing out the best in them and imparting to them an indefinable sweetness and exquisite freshness.”

Peasant farmers of Reggio, under stimulus of international demand, began replacing their orange and lemon orchards with groves of bergamot. The industry has expanded ever since, but it is still small, quaint, and untidy. From fifteen aziende (family concerns) and one collective farm, all in and near Reggio, comes all the world’s bergamot essence, over 200 tons a year.

The aziende diminish, but the acreage remains the same and production rises. Niccolo Cassar remembers a time fifty years ago when the bergamot country was sprinkled with sixty tiny peasant holdings like his own. He and his family (wife, two sons, their wives, and a grandchild) harvest their fruit in October, unripened but ready for pressing. These days they earn a few lire from the citric acid in the pulp — it used to be thrown away. The essence, the stuff that matters, is extracted from the peel by the girls, who squeeze out the beads of moisture against a sponge with their tough, grimy hands. In six hours an experienced presser gets through two hundred pounds of bergamots, and collects half a pint of essence.

A seesaw economy (prices going down as production goes up), and the temperamental disinclination of Calabrians to learn new tricks, account for the survival of a crude, wasteful, and laborious system. But, coaxed by forecasts of big perfumery demands and new chemical uses for bergamot, some old-fashioned aziende have recently taken their first halting steps toward automation. They employ a clumsy machine called calabrese, the “Calabrian,” in which the whole fruit is rolled between serrated disks while the essence trickles, drop by drop, through a woolen filtering sack into a cup. The calabrese deals with a hundred pounds of fruit an hour, and yields two pints of essence every day; but it must be set for different sizes of fruit, fed and emptied and cleaned by hand. It is easy to install at modest cost, simple to operate, suited to the characteristic small-time businesses of the bergamot country, and as modern as many a fruit farmer of Reggio wants.

Manpower becomes a problem in the depopulated south, Italy’s poorest province. Most young Calabrians dream only of earning enough to be able to emigrate to New York or Munich, and even the bergamot industry needs more machinery to do the work of men. On go-ahead aziende within the past few years, the pelatrice, the “skinner,” has appeared, automatically loading, grading, and unloading the fruit and centrifugally separating the essential oil from the juice. One pelatrice, for output, equals ten calabresi, or fifty manual pressers. Thirty percent of all the bergamot essence last year was extracted by pelatrice; this year it may be near 50 percent; and five years hence, they say, every bergamot in Reggio will go through the new machinery. It improves quality and sets standards of purity and concentration which the traditionalists with their sponges cannot match for long.

On the seafront road, which D’Annunzio called “Italy’s most beautiful kilometre” —a dead-straight boulevard, in line with Mount Etna across the water, with the shimmering Messina strait on one side and the white city of Reggio on the other — stands the control center for Italy’s most fragrant industry. It is a plain tenement-type building, with a brass plate on the door: Stazione Sperimentale per l’Industria delle Essenze e dei Derivati Agrumari (Experimental Station for the Essence and Fruit Derivatives Industry). Inside, white-overalled figures move quietly about. It might be an elegant small maternity home, where they use perfumed antiseptic. The waiting room is scattered with illustrated house journals of the fruit trades of many lands.

Professor Francesco La Face, dapper, courteous, and scarcely middleaged, station director and world authority on the bergamot, has a warm welcome for casual visitors — perhaps because he gets so few. He escorts them through the laboratories upstairs, a small scientific United Nations, whehe Italian and foreign chemists (an Argentinian, a Japanese, and a Hungarian at a recent count) analyze oils from the wild herbs of Sicily, determine citral percentages in fruit juices (a Canadian government project), and evaluate some of the aromatic essences of the region — some with flasks of lavender, sage, mint, and basil around them, others embowered in acacia, jonquil, orange blossom, and jasmine. On the research side, in the same small building, gas chromatography and spectrophotometry are opening up new areas of development in all the Mediterranean floral perfume industries.

The highly involved “aromatic complex” of bergamot is their special study. From a basket of superficially identical fruits, Professor La Face picks out examples of the three bergamot varieties: melarosa (slightly larger than average), torulosa (slightly smaller), and communis (mediumsized), which is the only type acceptable in the discriminating modern market. He distinguishes further between communis castagnaro and communis femminello — the former microscopically wrinkled and bulging, the latter smooth-skinned and spherical. Femminello, odorous and rich in essence (two qualities which rarely go together), is the most prized of bergamot strains, but hardest to grow and the shortest lived.

La Face, the perfect connoisseur, sniffs the myriad tiny substances which, along with the usual acetates, make up a test tube of concentrate, and accurately reports the date on which the fruit was picked, its precise geographical origin, and the method by which its essence was extracted. Rind of fruit prematurely harvested yields oil with a distinctive “green” aroma; the discerning nostril detects an impaired bouquet and knows that the fruit has been bruised in gathering, or overscraped, or left too long in the machine.

The bergamot industry is a state monopoly — a world monopoly. By a law stricter than those applied to the production of quality wines, every ounce of essence must be deposited in the Reggio warehouse of the Consorzio del Bergamotto, the branch of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry which supervises every stage of production, bottling, and marketing. Professor La Face approves certain physical and chemical standards, samples each consignment, awards a certificate to the grower — normale, mediocre, or deteriorata — and puts a market value on it. With the Consorzio’s direcort he constitutes a two-man pricefixing committee, the Olfactory Commission, which can make incentive payments to farmers who deliver essence of a refined vintage character. This happens rarely; and laboratory synthesis, using the same combinations of ingredients and reproducing the same growing conditions, is never successful.

The Bergamot Consortium’s biggest customer is France, but the essence is shipped all over the world, even to Moscow and Peking. Export figures for 1966 are a record 260 tons — $3 million worth. The whole industry, based on cultivation methods which look pathetically primitive today, faces a revolution tomorrow. Demonstration farms, experimental plantations, and centri di moltiplicazione (propagating stations) have begun to clamber up the precipitous slopes of Aspromonte, the “bitter mountain,” in Reggio’s suburbs. A day on the bergamot terraces is not the only attraction of Calabria’s provincial capital, a city where tourist attractions abound.

Soon the bergamot country may really prosper. A new factory farm north of Reggio will be capable, it is claimed, of handling 10,000 tons of fruit a year — and this is only the first of four which the Consorzio hopes to get working before 1971. There are moves to give Reggio its own perfume factory and fruit juice canning plant. (Nobody drinks bergamot orange at present, and the locally celebrated Southern Flower toilet water, bottled in the town, is a mere souvenir offering from the hospitable Calabrians to their visitors.) Fruit juice and eau de cologne are notoriously bracing commodities, and they could refresh and reinvigorate no others so much as the disoccupati, the idle poor of southern Italy.