Celebration of the Lemons
Visions of Grandeur
A discussion about France usually brings visions of the rich culture of the art or the wine or the food or the fashion. Or maybe the dialogue turns to history and Napoleon or Marie Antoinette or, of course, the infamous Eiffel Tower. If the conversation turns to the “The Côte d'Azur” (in English the French Riviera) images appear of the fabulously rich, the notoriously famous, and the elegantly unequaled lavishness of luxurious seaside settings, glorious beaches, magnificent yachts, opulent Monte Carlo, or maybe the glamorous Cannes Film Festival.
The Citrus of France?
Rarely, does a chat about France consider the French citrus sector. In fact citrus production in France is limited to less than 30,000 tons a year consisting primarily of about 20,000 tons of Clementine tangerines followed by 4,000 tons of Pomelos, and the balance of 6,000 tons of ‘other’ citrus. To put these quantities in perspective, world citrus production in 2013 was a bit over 115,000,000 tons. All citrus produced in France is consumed by the French and no significant export or processing channels are developed for French citrus. But once a year, since the 1920’s, the citrus produced in a small medieval town on the Mediterranean named Menton, brings notoriety to this lesser known coastal city and region of southern France.
The French Riviera
Menton is situated in the most southeastern corner of France on the border of Italy. It is a rather overlooked city on of the French Rivera, less than 7 miles from the Principality of Monaco. Evidence has determined the Menton area has been inhabited since the Paleolithic era (Stone Age) with the discovery of the original “Grimaldi Man” as well as Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons. The Romans passed through the area on the Via Julia Augusta road, and the first major settlement occurred during the 11th century the Count of Ventimiglia constructed the Chateau de Puypin. The Vento family of Genoa overtook the area in the 13th century and first mention of Menton dates from July 21, 1262 in the peace treaty between Charles of Anjou and Genoa. Menton was acquired in 1346 by the Lord of Monaco, Charles Grimaldi, and ruled by the princes of Monaco until the French Revolution.
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Pearl of France
In 1848 Menton seceded from Monaco due to, at least in part, a tax imposed on lemons exported from the area. Menton proclaimed themselves a “free city” until 1860 when annexed to France. In 1861, the English doctor James Henry Bennett published Winter and Spring on the Shores of the Mediterranean making it a destination for sufferers of tuberculosis. This work attracted elite Russian and English aristocrats who built luxurious hotels, villas, palaces, and gardens still standing today. The city was coined the "Pearl of France" by the great anarchist, geographer, and political theorist Elisha Reclus (1830-1905) in his 19-volume masterwork La Nouvelle Géographie universelle, la terre et les hommes ("Universal Geography"). Too, Queen Victoria has been credited with the British “discovery” of 1 the French Riviera with her (and her nearly 100 person entourage) trips to the French coastal region including her late winter stay in Menton in 1882.
Citrons de Menton – the Fable?
According to some in the region, the lemon was first planted in Menton by Eve. When Adam and Eve were ousted from the Garden of Eden, Eve had taken a lemon along with her. When Adam found the lemon in Eve’s possession, in fear of what had happened with the apple, he forced Eve to relinquish the fruit. She selected the beauty and warmth of the Mediterranean seaside of what would become Menton to plant the lemon.
Citrons de Menton – the Fact
Besides Eve, only a citrus farmer can truly appreciate the true beauty of Menton: the unique micro-climate that allows production of lemons year-round. Lemons are the most susceptible variety of citrus to freezing and cannot withstand any temperatures below 32 degrees as can most other citrus. This is a direct result of the low sugar content of the Lemon. By the 1920’s, the Menton area had become the largest lemon producer in Europe and the city had established itself as a tourist destination.
Fete du Citron
In 1928 a local hotelier organized a display of citrus fruit in the gardens of the Hotel Riviera as a promotional idea to attract more visitors to this part of the French Riviera. The event was so successful, the following year it expanded to the streets of Menton with carts covered with lemons, oranges and attractive girls presenting the citrus in these early versions of “floats”. In 1935 the event was promoted as The Lemon Festival by the local municipality and business owners. The event now follows a theme each year and is celebrated by the city in February with elaborate displays, parades, and decorated gardens all created with citrus. The celebration of the Lemons of Menton has become a major tourist attraction although the current volume of lemon production is, and will probably remain, only symbolic of a different age of agriculture in Europe.