For my beloved Brother who introduced me to the art of cooking, who taught me how to taste and truly love food. Without him I'd never be able to be where I am today.

May 20, 2013

Lady Clementine

“Welcome to Calabria!” she shouts, as she steps out of her car, “Sorry for being late… you know how it is here in the South…” she continues with vivid gestures and a disarming smile. She is Cristiana Smurra, co-owner of the family run organic clementine farm Biosmurra right outside of Rossano in Northern Calabria. 

For Cristiana, clementines are a family affair. Her family has run the five-hectare farm since 1987. Four years ago, when she took over the family business together with her older sister Martina, the two ladies took the decision to go fully organic. “By no mean was it an easy switch” she recalls. And I believe her. As she shares with us the ups and downs they’ve encountered along the way to Bio, I couldn’t help but fix my gaze on her big rough hands. They were the hands of a true farmer. She was no average Italiana – that I could tell immediately. Behind her warm and soft persona lay a tenacious and hard working independent woman. A modern day Superwoman, fierce, beautiful, witty and tough skinned. Our group consisting of women only all stared at her flabbergasted with sincere admiration.

“Let’s have some clementines ladies, follow me”. I liked the sound of that, so did my classmates. As we walked towards the clementine plantations, Cristiana gave us an introduction to the characteristics of the clementine tree. We learned that the rootstock of the clementine trees are at least a hundred years old, the stems might be younger. “Can you see this cut?” Cristiana pointed at the lowest part of the stem. Indeed, one could perceive a sort of cut, like a scar on the very lowest part of the stem only a few inches off the soil surface. That was the old stump out of which new trees grow again and again. 

The clementine tree is a fascinating plant. The ones Cristiana grows are seedless hybrids of arancio amaro (bitter orange) and mandarino Avana (Avana mandarin). The more she told us about her clementines, the more I admired her. But neither for her knowledge in organic farming nor the savoir-faire running a two-women business, but for the love and caring she conveyed and expressed for her farm as she led our group through the various clementine species. Her rough hands gently caressed the leaves of each tree as she passed them by. She smiled at each orange blossom as if she thanked them for giving her fruit. Mesmerized, I followed her through the field. The air smelled citrusy and sweet – whether it was her or the fruit, I couldn’t tell. It didn’t really matter; I had already understood that they were one, Lady Clementine and her fruits. 

“There’s only a few trees that still bare fruit, the season is almost over. But I wanted you girls to pick some to take home so I didn’t harvest them all”. It suddenly hit me that we had stopped by a tree with its braches hanging heavy of glossy and radiant orange clementines. It all seemed surreal, almost heavenly.  Where was I, at the Biosmurra farm or the Garden of Eden? Was Cristiana Eve who tempted me with the almost perversely perfect clementines?  Would I regain consciousness and realize I’m standing in the middle of a clementine farm butt naked if I peeled one? I wanted to find out.

I spotted a clementine that had my name on it. Hello lover! What an exquisite clementine is was. I reached for it and gave it a tug. The fruits were so ripe that my move made ten other clementines fall all around me. Clementine rain! 

With the chosen one in my hand I heard Cristiana in the background “Mangia Edith, mangia!” Her wish was my command. The peel came off without any effort and I could instantly feel the lukewarm sticky juice running down my wrist and along my forearm. The smell of the clementine tickled my nostrils. It was Mother Nature’s own perfume. Wait. Are those angels singing in the background or is it just my mind playing tricks on me? Cristiana had selected this specific tree exactly for its distinctively aromatic fruits. Sweet and acidic, juicy and fleshy all in wrapped in a radiant orange coat. And it tasted like no clementine I had ever eaten before. The flavors were exceptionally intense and sharp, but very balanced and delicate at the same time. To say that it tasted like a clementine would have been a serious understatement.  The clementines I knew from before tasted nothing more than blandly sweet and vaguely acidic compared to these ones. I was able to taste the sun, the hills, the soil and the sea. Most of all, however, I could taste the love and devotion. 

Standing there surrounded by clementine tree with the warm spring breeze kissing my skin, with my fingers sticky and my lips slightly stinging, I felt like I could stay there forever and live happily ever after.  Eating the forbidden fruit certainly didn’t bring me back to reality, quite the opposite. In my mind I was still happily unaware of my nudity in that Calabrian La-la Land. My facial expression must have revealed my intoxication since I noticed Cristiana staring at me with content. No words were spoken but she knew that I knew. She was pleased, so was I. “Wait until you try our marmalades… ” she whispered and smiled.

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