The moment I entered the shop my eyes expanded and ventured directly to that holy bright neon green matter. It was everywhere. Peeled and candied, in raw form, in the gelato section; for all I knew, the building was made of it. Its perfume, a refreshing yet subtly sweet scent that many candle companies try and mostly fail to mimic, was everywhere. No matter its form, I knew, I was a goner. I flew 6,300 miles and arrived yet again in my version of Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy”: a dangerous place where all types of Cedro Calabrese products would undoubtedly devour my mind. I couldn’t stop until I voraciously consumed each option, over and over again.
As I tried to regain some sort of composure, I was given a sample. My cousin Luca, like all good Calabrese family members with their visiting cousins in town, bought and encouraged me to try its most popular candied form first. Traditionally produced so that it could be stored for the long term, this chewy, sugary treat was not overbearing like a mass-produced Sour Patch Kid, but rather soft and nurturing on the tongue like a freshly dried cool bed sheet on the skin after a day in the sun.
We drove down the autostrada from Scalea to find the cedro’s magical source in Santa Maria Del Cedro, the epicenter and Mecca of Cedro Calabrese or Diamante Citron in English. Here they have harvested these special fruits since 350 BC, a testament to life on the Mediterranean: a mix of people, customs, and traditions brought from all over the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe.
Originally transported by the ancient Jewish community, the Diamante Citron began to thrive in the archaic Greek settlement formerly known as Laus. Fast forward 2,000 plus years of invasions from the Carthaginians, Turkish pirates, Normans, and the Spanish crown, the cedro fruit is still there and grows as it always has. Only on this stretch of the Tyrrhenian coast has it constantly flourished and remains revered. Locals utilize it for nearly everything: as an antioxidant, a cure for headaches and gout, a palette cleanser, you name it. High-ranking officials of the Jewish community also routinely travel from Israel each year to hand select these ungrafted and unique fruits for their quality and religious significance as they have for millennia.
By the second and third chew, saturated with serotonin and sugar, the flavors brought me back to yesteryear’s memories and legendary family folklore. Feeling the rush, my thoughts connected first with stories of Zia Pasqualina, the family’s “professional” pannicelli or panaccied maker in our dialect. Noted for the wizardry of her craftsmanship, Zia Pasqualina made the Verbicaresi panccied, an autumn treat, year after year like those in her family had done for centuries. Combining meticulously dried zibibbo grapes, and pieces of cedro, all packed immaculately in the leaf of cedro and baked perfectly until its items inside literally melt into one cosmos of lust — bringing you deeper into a black hole of sugary ecstasy.
Yet, the stories of Zia Pasqualina are not necessarily unique.
As time goes by and the older you get, you realize you’re always chasing something. A memory, a feeling, a paycheck — perhaps love. Food, in many senses, is what love is in Calabria.
People that create majestic meals out of simple ingredients or those who provide those ingredients, such as cedro, go down in history as – nearly deities. And if you spend time in the countryside, you’ll watch your Nonna’s or Nonno’s face light up when they see their fresh figs or bright watermelon growing in summer, or the moment they notice the size of their cedro. In that moment you will know: the truest love language in Calabria is the simple preparation of food and its consumption with family.
I was handed the next item on the agenda. A freshly made cornetto with bits of cedro inside and a cedro-y infused chocolate coat on top. Decadently covered with powdered sugar, hot, and smelling like a bakery at 6 AM, this pastry should have had a “Parental Advisory” warning. Its combination of sweet, milky, powdery goodness would have sent even the most devout nun on their way to play cards with sailors and prostitutes in the dodgiest part of town. Each morsel took me closer to leaving the purgatory of cedro. As I was getting powdered sugar all over my shirt I recalled the first time I had tried cedro. It was 2001 and I was 9 years old. AS Roma were crowned champions of Serie A, the Euro meant nothing, and the Lira, for us Americanized Italians, guaranteed a cheaper life of endless possibilities. It was a summer spent seeing countless extended family members. It was the summer we wish we could all re-live.
I could hear it. I felt the sounds of the stadium chanting the name of Rome’s other Pope: Totti. But it was not time for me to get lost in the glory of the Scudetto nor of 7-course meals at the family farmhouse. I was redirected to what was happening next. The tasting meal was winding down. It was time to get serious– it was time for the digestivo. The shop owner simultaneously began to pour us our consecrated elixir.
Every sip of this liquor is special. Every sip tends to build off of a new layer of complexity, building off a past layer. In a highly religious place like Calabria, one cannot underestimate the cedro’s significance as the binding force that symbolizes it all… whatever it may mean.
Different from its northern cousin limoncello, liquore di cedro has slightly more range; more aromatics make the citrus flavor less acidic and not overly sweet. For a newcomer, its flavor brings in the best of all different citrus flavors. At first taste it leaves the palette questioning if it’s a sort of lemon with hints of orange. The second time makes you reevaluate: maybe some sort of lime with hints of grapefruit and lavender.
The smell, that remarkable smell transported me back to a day in June of 2015.
There is something special about picking citrus in the dead-heat of the day during the pisolino at around 3 PM. When you take a ride with your Nonno, the car for the most part is quiet. Some music in the background, sounds of your tires treading over the rocky sandstone gravel roads, dust engulfing the area around you. The towns are quiet. The roads are empty. The sun directly over your head is hot and the Saharan winds that grace your arms, sticking out the nearly inoperable car window, are balmy and almost refreshing. But the real thoughts are on the prize.
The moment you get on the land to pick the fruit, its scent explodes. The humidity immediately hits the tiny crack at the end of the fruit that’s opened up and the perfume carries and runs after the sun.
It’s been 19 years since I first had fresh cedro; five since I would drive with my Nonno to the nasoni to pick up water in Marcellina every other day. Despite years passing, each time I go back to Calabria, each time I think or see or taste the cedro, I am brought back to what I love most. I’m not sure whether I’m just a sucker for nostalgia or simply a snob that understands the potential for this super ingredient to take on the world stage like, say, açaí. But one thing is certain, the Diamante Citron is not just super because of its taste or health benefits, it’s special and meaningful not only to me but to thousands, if not millions, of Calabresi because we are connected to it by blood, by the soil and sun, and by the happiness it brings with each sip or bite.
It can alter days, and bring me back to sunny afternoons spent with my Nonno. It keeps me hopeful and excited… excited to see family, excited to watch new talented bakers or chefs incorporate this fresh fruit in ways never used before, to taste something that embodies the Tyrrhenian Sea in each bite.
It, like us, rises and falls through history but continues forever in one form or another.