Lemons dot the lush Caribbean landscape of New Orleans, a centuries old gift from Asian merchants and agricultural explorer Frank Meyer to America. Like most of America and Martha Stewart, folks here grow Frank’s namesake “Meyer” lemons – conventional wisdom, tradition or both assuming it is the only lemon to thrive in our hot semi-tropical climate.
But, no offense Frank, I’m taking it back home a bit – in this legendary port town. To the mother country. Italy. Sicily. With a twist. And that brings me to this very special spot: just a short walk downriver from the French Quarter in the popular Bywater neighborhood - here on the bank of the Mississippi River, set to the Rice Mill Lofts and its gritty canvas of graffiti - our lemon grove.
These lemons ain’t no Meyers ! Ours are the Limone di Sorrento, the aromatic Sorrento varietal from the southern coast of Italy overlooking the Bay of Naples. Their trees are a defining visual feature of Italy’s coast - countless splashes of yellow against greenery and blue sky. They often grow on steep slopes and, crucially, prevent land erosion. Ahhhh, if only we had thought of that here!
These Italian beauties are no shapely Ferraris; thick of skin, with the rugged look of hard earned character, sporting pockmarks like battle scars from an acne-challenged adolescence. This storied fruit is thought to have been introduced to Campania by Jews in the first century BC who used them in religious rituals, and I like to think their good story makes our grove, bearing odd-shaped fruit in a faraway land, a special, off-the-grid immigration – and, incidentally, the only one of its kind east of California.
Sicilians came here in great numbers through the 1890’s and have with their cuisine and other rituals made an elaborate and unmistakable imprint upon New Orleans. When steamships nicknamed “lemon boats” pointed their prows toward opportunity and arrived teeming with citrus and Sicilians, it’s easy to imagine these lemons as auspicious, the vivid banner of a great people on the move. Scramuzza, Pelleteri, Taranova, Gagliano, Mosca and Marcello – epic characters and Pisan names that still hover in pastel neon script over some of the best restaurants, watering holes, betting windows and sundries—and one or two frustrated U.S. Attorney offices too.
Our proud Sicilian streak cuts boldly through our foodways. On the avenues you encounter Brocato’s elegant pastries, Pascal’s Manale’s, Mandina’s, Liuzza’s, Vincent’s and Venezia’s finely woven Italian-Creole traditions, NorJoe and Central Grocery for muffulettas and old world culinary ingredients. These names are gold thread to the brocade of eating, drinking and living well here.
Whether on land or sea, yellow is a powerful hue, intensifying nearby colors. In the Dutch Masters’ better still life paintings, you often find a lemon – rare, costly and coveted in Europe for age. Just its portrait, glistening flesh with a dangling spiral, is a test of a painter’s skill. But there is also a dynamic at play here, a minuet of elegance and mortality hand in hand.
You could go as far as to carve out a lesson on life. All things must die, life is a gift: the best way to show appreciation for a gift is to enjoy it. That’s the lesson our city offers anyone who visits or lives here long enough to learn its ways.
Tradition unites joy and solemnity, and in honor of St. Joseph the hotel - in league with numerous local churches, the offbeat Lost Love Lounge, private living rooms, and oil-stained carports – each year builds an elaborate altar full of symbolic offerings, with reverence to the patron saint of protection … and makes its own limoncello.
A digestif, intended to be served after a meal, limoncello’s flavor derives from the zest of the fruit. The Sorrento Lemon is our secret ingredient in the world’s best limoncello and our modest contribution to the Feast Day. We raise it in celebration, and sipped just right it might transport you from our little grove on the banks of the Mississippi to the volcanic hillsides overlooking the Bay of Naples. It’s the sort of connection of people and place that makes New Orleans unlike any other city in America.
Cheers, Cin Cin, Saluti - to an Extravagant Taste of Place !
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