Bergamot. Sounds exotic, doesn’t it. Most of you would say you have never tried one although you likely already have. It’s the flavour that makes Earl Grey tea distinct. Many of you may not have even realised that flavour was a citrus fruit but there it is. The bergamot is a type of fragrant but sour orange. Actually it is a hybrid (most citrus fruits are) between a lemon and a sour orange (which itself is a hybrid between the pomelo and the mandarin). Bergamots are mostly grown in the southern part of Calabria where they first appeared in the 17th century. Fortunately for Calabrians, bergamot is a fastidious tree, stubbornly refusing to grow well outside of this small part of Calabria which offers a favourable climate and rich soil.
Bergamot are a lucrative crop due to their valuable essential oils which are used in perfume, although it takes 100 kilos of bergamot to make half a litre of oil. Adding bergamot oil to a perfume makes the scent last longer. In fact, the first Eau de Cologne was a bergamot-based perfume invented in the 18th century by a Piedmontese named Giovanni Maria Farina who emigrated to Cologne, Germany. He had whole bergamot fruit shipped to Cologne to make his famous perfume. In the 19th century, bergamot oil’s antiseptic and antibacterial qualities were discovered by Francesco Calabro when he saw that wounds incurred from workers cutting themselves peeling the bergamot would heal quickly and not become infected. Soon it began to be esteemed also for its medicinal use. Today it is still being researched as a possible antiviral treatment for AIDS and as an antidepressant.
In Calabria, bergamot is also made into marmalade, flavoured honey, flavoured olive oil, granita (a slushy ice drink), bergamot syrup, bergamot sorbet, soda and in biscuits (le nacatole). The juice is less sour than lemon juice but doesn’t have a strong bergamot flavour. For the characteristic bergamot taste, the zest is needed. Bergamot season began in October and will stretch through the end of the year. We have been experimenting with cooking bergamot: bergamot risotto (while risotto is not traditional to Calabria, it is a delicious use for the fruit that is prepared in Calabria), bergamot tart (like a lemon tart but with a bergamot tang) and bergamot “lemonade”.
Risotto al bergamotto (bergamot risotto) – Calabria
The juice while sour, lacks the characteristic bergamot flavour. The zest is included for this reason although it can be intense if too much is added. Add sparingly and taste before adding more to ensure you are happy with the amount. For step-by-step illustrated instructions, please click here.
1 small onion (preferably a Tropea onion), skin and ends removed and finely chopped
15 mls (1 tablespoon) extra-virgin olive oil
350 grams risotto rice
45 mls (3 tablespoons) bergamot juice
1 litre vegetable broth, boiling
2 pinches bergamot zest (about 5 grams)
50 grams Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, finely grated
4 basil leaves, rinsed, dried and chopped
Add the onion and the olive oil to a large saucepan or risotto pan and cook over low heat, stirring until the onion is soft (about 10 minutes). Add the rice and stir for 4 to 5 minutes until it begins making a squeaking noise. Add the bergamot juice and a teaspoon of salt and cook, stirring until the juice has evaporated. Add the stock to cover the rice. Stir the rice continuously, adding broth as necessary to keep the rice covered until the rice is cooked and still al dente in the centre, 16 to 20 minutes depending on the variety of rice. Add the zest and stir to combine. Taste the risotto to see if you prefer more of the zest. Stir through the cheese and basil and serve immediately.