Italian food is about simplicity and seasonality, and in Sicily spring brings the fragrant lemon harvest – eagerly awaited in one corner of Devon. Hattie Ellis takes a trip to the mother country with a pioneer of real lemonade
Do you remember when lemonade used to be just that harshly fizzy clear stuff you bought in big plastic bottles? Now you can find a fragrant, sweetly-sharp drink that’s the soft yellow of a summer’s evening. Often called Sicilian lemonade, it is similar to what you’d make at home. Add a slosh of gin, vodka or rum and it’s something else again.
One of the best Sicilian lemonades is made by Luscombe Drinks in Devon, the pioneer of the trend, starting back in 1997. The story behind this drink takes you deep into the heart of a Sicilian village where, in 1969, an artistic couple and their young family arrived. Julian David had been a teacher at the progressive school Dartington Hall. In the days when gap years were just starting, he wanted to take students into the heart of the Mediterranean. The family set up home for four years in Scopello, a fishing village at the end of a long, winding road up in the north-west corner of the island. The village was a world apart, with one phone line and a dozen mules to work the fields. Here they hosted the students who helped set up a pottery and worked with the villagers on their smallholdings.
Nearly 30 years later the couple’s son, Gabriel, went to live in Sicily for another four years. Returning to the UK to head his father’s struggling Devon-based cider company, he decided to expand the business to sell upmarket organic drinks with no concentrates or additives. The first idea was to make real lemonade and the inspiration, of course, was Italy.
‘Sicily is lemons,’ says Gabriel as he surveys the plain beyond the island’s capital Palermo, called the Conca d’Oro (golden shell) because of its abundant citrus crop. He is on one of his regular trips to the island to see the springtime lemon harvest. Sicilian lemons are famous for their floral fragrance and depth of flavour. Luscombe’s organic lemon juice supplier is a family company, started in 1896, that grows and hand-picks its own lemons and collect others from co-operatives of smallholdings and family gardens.
Life in a Sicilian village used to be tough, but from the scarcity of resources comes creativity. In terms of food, this has created a way of eating that is deeply local and seasonal. Gabriel concludes his visit with a trip to Scopello, where his old Sicilian friend Dino takes him up into the hills to gather the beautifully bitter wild asparagus and greens that are eaten at this time of year. The village has thrived with the development of locally run tourism. Near the centre is a lemon grove within a walled garden and here you can buy honey that the bees have made from nectar from the lemon blossom.
Gabriel recalls the meals of his childhood cooked and eaten in the baglio or village square. For supper a fire was lit outside and fish put on the grill and brushed with olive oil using a sprig from the olive tree. At this time of year, for the Feast of San Giuseppe, the villagers bring their grapevine and olive tree prunings to the square which are lit. The hot embers are then raked out for a big communal village barbeque.
This seasonality holds true in the city too. A wander around Palermo’s Vucciria market is one of the best food experiences you will ever have. At this time of year, bundles of fresh wild fennel sit next to spikey little artichokes and young courgette leaves that are ready to go onto pasta. Fish sellers flick water onto gleaming shoals of fish and little prawns that are a tender pink.
The street food is sensational, and all the more so for its striking simplicity. At this time of year, you see big bubbling pots full of potatoes that cook in highly salted water. They are sold in small paper conefuls — no vinegar, no oil, no herbs. The flavour of these very fresh young spuds is quite simply enough. Other pots produce octopus that you eat in chunks from a paper plate, with a squeeze of lemon.
‘The French get very complicated and elaborate about food but the Italians keep it simple and let the flavour of the ingredients come through,’ says Gabriel. It sums up the lessons of a Sicilian village that he has carried through to northern shores like a message in a bottle.
Hattie Ellis doesn’t mind being a lemon, so long as it’s Sicilian.