Menton was once Europe’s leading lemon-growing region, but it had fallen precipitously over the centuries. However, producers have recently rediscovered the fruit’s potential.
If you want to know how much the people of Menton love their lemon, look no further than the legend that attributes its arrival on the French Riviera to Eve.
The story goes that after being expelled from Eden, Eve picked a lemon to take with her on the journey. Fearing eternal damnation, Adam begged her to throw it away, which she agreed to do only in a location of her choosing.
As a result, she discovered Menton, located on the gleaming Bay of Garavan, where the Alps rescind from the water just enough to create slopes with an east-west alignment – ideal conditions for lemon cultivation.
While it is impossible to verify the legend itself, The symbolism of the paradisiacal lemon is embedded in the folklore of this 30,000-person seaside town, where the bus line is called “Zeste” and a lemon motif appears to be the logical choice for many local businesses.
During the Fête du Citron, an annual festival held in February that celebrates the history and culture of citrus growing in the region, most notably the Menton lemon, an officially recognised species that differs from Corsican, Spanish, or Italian varieties in terms of its mild flavour and large, round shape with bumpy skin.
The festival’s allure is in its floats and sculptures, which are made up of more than three tonnes of lemons and oranges rubber-banded to a wire framework shaped to match the year’s theme. The Fête du Citron differs from other Carnival events in France in that the floats and sculptures are prepared by municipal workers who spend the majority of the year maintaining city buildings.
The 2022 edition, titled Operas and Dances, marked the festival’s triumphant return after being cancelled midway through in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Sunday parade featured blaring marching bands, vibrant performers, and six floats covered in lemons and oranges, some as tall as 10 metres and sculpted to represent the Samba. Can-can, Haka, Matachines, Salsa, and Kathakali are examples of dance styles.
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Costumed performers on the floats worked alongside smiling city employees in neon-green safety vests to shower confetti on the 15,000 spectators, whose outstretched arms made it clear they couldn’t get enough.
As the party continued in the valley, the terraced hillsides overlooking the town revealed a harsher reality: Menton was once Europe’s leading lemon-growing region, but only about 15 producers remain today. “The annual production of Menton lemons is between 100 and 120 tonnes.” All of the fruit for the Fête du Citron’s sculptures and floats must be imported from Spain. We require between 150 and 180 tonnes of lemons and oranges during this time period. “As a result, the production of Menton lemons would not be sufficient to create the entire Fête du Citron,” said Christophe Ghiena, the city’s director of technical services, adding that the remaining citrus is sold at discounted prices after the festival.
Aside from the Biblical legend, the documented story of the Menton lemon’s rise and fall began in the 15th century with its arrival from Spain. The fruit adapted quickly to Menton’s temperate microclimate, which was created by the unique combination of a protective mountain range and proximity to the sea. According to David Rousseau, director of Menton’s heritage department, by the end of the 18th century, the region was estimated to produce one million lemons per year.
“The lemon was the city of Menton’s fortune in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Lemons were exported all the way to Russia and the United States. It was a large-scale production “he stated
It was a production of global scale
The decline of the Menton lemon began at the end of the French Revolution, when laws protecting it from competition from other lemon-producing regions were repealed. The second setback occurred in the nineteenth century, when the arrival of British winter tourists prompted the construction of hotels and villas on citrus terrace land. Finally, in the 1950s, an unusual cold snap did in the Menton lemon.
“There was a big freeze in Menton and France that killed the last lemon trees,” Rousseau explained. “It wasn’t until the 1980s that the lemon began to make a comeback, thanks to several producers who saw its potential and relaunched production.”
Laurent Gannac is one such grower. Originally from France’s southwest, Gannac moved to Menton to work as a landscaper in 1988. He said that every time he brought lemon trees to clients in the area, he’d get the same question: Is this a Menton lemon?
“I had scientific and agricultural training, but I had never heard of a Menton lemon,” he explained. “So I’d tell them, ‘Well, I brought it from Menton, so I guess it’s a Menton lemon if you want,'” she says.
He became fascinated by the species and planted his first Menton lemon tree in 1991. Gannac explained that at the time, the few remaining producers questioned why a young person would be interested in a seemingly obsolete product.
Gannac and his son currently own 750 trees on 2.5 hectares of land, with a goal of 1,000 trees in the next three years. Despite the fact that his operation pales in comparison to the output of producers in Spain or Italy, Gannac is proud to be the first person in recent years to live entirely on the Menton lemon. Nonetheless, he is one of a very few.
“To plant 400 trees here means starting with a completely abandoned site, clearing it, levelling the terraces, and so on.” “Build irrigation reservoirs and fence them in to keep wild boars out,” he said. “It’s a lot of work, especially considering the investment takes eight years to recoup.”