Organic Lemons: the juicy story of Lemony Lemonade
One thing you’ll notice about Lemony Lemonade is you can hardly see through it. That’s because a third of the liquid in every bottle of Lemony is lemon juice. Organic juice that comes all the way from a land where lemon trees have been growing for thousands of years.
Say hello to Don Pepe, Lemony 's 88 year old Sicilian ‘Godfather’ Giuseppe Ingrilli. He’s been growing organic lemons in Capo d’Orlando since he was a boy. Before him his father and grandfather grew lemons.
Today his son and grandson Giuseppe Junior work for the family firm putting the squeeze on thousands of tonnes of lemons a year and shipping their juice around the world. Juice that makes up a quarter of every bottle of Lemony.
When Don Pepe was a boy he never wanted to go to school, he was more interested in helping his dad. He would pester his parents to let him work in the families lemon groves. So his father would wake him up at 6 and take him to tend the trees before school.
In time Don Pepe graduated from school and made his mind up to be a farmer. At 88 he still gets up at 6 every morning and goes to work on the family farm. Today he’s ready to knock off mid morning, which is when I managed to catch up with him.
Although his work ethic hasn’t changed the farm has. Back in the day the lemons grew in fields that ran all the way down to the sea. These days on the coast of Capo d’Orlando more holiday makers soak up the sun than lemons, and the lemon trees have retreated into the hills that roll all the way down from Mt Etna.
Many lemon farming families in the area have sold their fields but the Ingrilli’s couldn’t imagine doing anything else and, like other citrus farmers who have formed cooperatives to stay on the land, it looks like they’ll be here another five generations at least.
Growing things organically is a relatively modern concept for Don Pepe. When the Ingrillis planted their first lemon trees in 1880 there was no such thing as an organic certified lemon because everything here grew organically, no exceptions.
Any supplementary nutrients beyond the rain that rolls in from over the Tyrrhenian Sea in the north running off Mt Etna to fill the aquifers under Capo d’ Orlando’s foothills, and the fertile soil washed down from the volcano, came from chickens and cows.
Ironically it wasn’t until 100 years after they planted their first tree that the Ingrillis had to consider farming organically.
Don Pepe explains that in the 1980’s the government made funds available for farmers to adopt modern farming methods with unintended consequences. ‘Some of the money went to people that didn’t have a single tree’. But even more harm was done by farmers ‘pushing’ their trees to produce more fruit than was natural.
They would force the lemon trees to produce ‘verdello’, smaller green summer lemons with higher acidity, by using chemical fertilisers. Because summer isn’t the time for picking fully yellow fruit and as lemons are very scarce in these months verdelli would fetch high prices.Then they’d use more chemical fertiliser to encourage the trees to produce further crops throughout the year.
When Don Pepe talks about the lemon trees being put under stress by unatural farming techniques he gesticulates in a way that makes you believe he’s talking about people, heaving and sighing to show the pressure they are under and how, eventually, this hurts them beyond repair.
He says the trees were "making fruit but they were suffering" and getting sick with diseases like a "cancer for citrus trees that eventually kills them".
The money that paid for chemical fertiliser also bought herbicide and pesticide. Don Pepe observed that when these were applied they were indiscriminate, not just eradicating pests but "killing everything". He says "it was a mistake".
Don Pepe had experimented with these new techniques and they’d failed him and hurt his trees. He was among the first in Capo d’Orlando to become officially organic, having his produce certified to ensure none of his lemon trees suffered any longer.
As a younger man Don Pepe had a clever idea to build a plant that would make good of the lemons he and his father couldn’t sell in the fresh produce markets. He knew he could use the uglier, blemished fruit scarred from bad luck, heavy weather and rough handling for juice.
After all the juice of ugly fruit tasted just as good as the other prettier lemons. So he tried to convince his father to build a factory. His father wasn’t so sure but Giuseppe’s Mother helped talk him into it. Don Pepe’s father gave in and agreed to buy the machines that squeeze the juice from their lemons.
These days his son manages the factory and his grandson Guiseppe Junior is in charge of selling and marketing the Feminillo Lemon Juice, Orange Juice, Lime and other citrus juice they process from farms and cooperatives around Capo d’Orlando, around the world.
We use the Ingrilli’s lemon juice not only because it’s organic but because, after trying a lot of lemons, Guiseppe’s was the best tasting juice we could find. Like Sicily’s other famous export the Ingrilli’s aren’t used to compromise, the quality and flavour of their juice is the best in the world but, unlike historic Sicilian exports, their cosa nostra (their thing) is just delicious, organic lemons.
There is a lemon ‘calendar’ with the Femminello lemon crops managed to produce four types of lemon picked at different times of the year:
1 - Primafiore: ‘the first flower’, the first harvest of lemons in November and December.
2 - Limoni Invernale: ‘winter lemon’, very good for peel oil with the best flavour harvested in January.
3 - Bianchetto: the ‘white’ lemon. Harvested in spring this is the biggest and sweetest and best for lemonade.
4 - Verdelli: Summer lemon, small and green with high acidity. This variety doesn’t turn green