The coastal road outside Reggio Calabria, along the Ionian Sea, boasts two imposing sights: a grandstand view over the Mediterranean and a long stretch of lush coastal orchards, primarily between Villa S. Giovanni and Roccella Jonica. One would be forgiven for thinking that an impressionist painter had just swooped by, daubing the branches with bold blobs of yellow. On closer inspection, however, those splashes of colour are porous-skinned fruit the size of oranges. They are at their peak between December and April.
To the specialists of Reggio, Citrus bergamia risso or bergamot, a member of the rutacee family, is best known as an ingredient of beauty products. Its fresh, lemony aroma adds a unique touch to soaps, hand creams, shampoos, bath salts, deodorants, even toothpastes. Most significantly, though, its oil extracts are fundamental to the international perfume industry. Nowhere (with the exception of less viable cultivation in the Ivory Coast) does the bergamot tree flourish as successfully as in this small strip of Calabria.
While bergamot was historically used externally, the British came to love its subtle flavour added to their brews of Earl Grey tea, and a handful of regional sweets grew up, largely within the borders of Calabria. Now cooks are waking up to the potential of this rare fruit as a regular ingredient.
In Rome, chef Renato Sorrentino has been experimenting for the last three years in the kitchens of Ristorante Furore, just off Via Giulia. He has devised dishes using the fruit that span the menu, from a fiery red paste of whiting, cherry tomatoes and bergamot to spread on bread, to a stubby swirl of scilatelle pasta in a creamy seafood sauce laced with a generous grating of bergamot rind. Another offering is an ample mound of sauted shellfish blended with orange and bergamot pulp.
Owner Gigi Abbruzzo explains that the focus is always going to be on seafood, where the two go well. Bergamot on meat just doesnt work: the latter is simply too defined a taste. Whatever diners choose for the dessert course, the finale is a little chocolate-covered nugget of bergamot-flavoured torrone. Abbruzzo also keeps a stock of bergamotiana gifts to take home, such as cooking oils and digestifs laced with this very special scent from Calabria.
Ristorante Furore, Vicolo Orbitelli 13/a, tel. 0668809050. Sunday closed.