Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Celebrating the Humble Lemon: Menton's Fête du Citron

The citrus covered entrance to Menton's Jardins Biovès.
 What should you do when life gives you lemons?  Have a festival of course!  At least that's what they've been doing here in Menton for the past 79 years and they show no sign of slowing down.

Every year in mid February, Menton holds the spectacular,  Fête du Citron  and it's quite the barrel of laughs with huge, 10 metre high structures covered entirely  with lemons and oranges.  Of course, no festival would be complete without fireworks, a parade, the crowning of Miss Lemon, and people everywhere munching on lemon tarts. This year the fun begins on the 17th.

Lemons in Menton go way back.  Historical documents show that lemons have been grown in Menton since 1471, long before the lemon squeezer was invented.

Having cooked everything from tarts to cakes to gelato with Menton's lemons and having squeezed a tree's worth into glasses of Perrier over the years, I know what all the fuss is about.  Their skin and flesh have a lower acidity than other lemons and they taste sweet and delicious.  It's Auntie's favourite lemon for sure.
What every good lemon needs is a cheerleader, and so Menton has a special organization called, Association pour la Promotion du Citron de Menton or The Association for the Promotion of Menton's Lemons.  One of their goals is to get a prestigious "I.G.P." or Indication Géographique Protégée status for Menton's lemons and thus official recognition for their special qualities.  Most lemon lovers acknowledge that these qualities are mainly due to Menton's favourable growing conditions and they definitely have a point.  Menton has the warmest climate anywhere in France, partly due to warm breezes from the Mediterranean Sea and a  tall ring of surrounding mountains which shelter it from cold winter winds.  Currently, these mountains are powdered with snow but that's another story!

If the lemons do earn their I.G.P. status, they'll get a nifty label and maybe the producers will be able charge more for them too.  We have a few lemon trees in our garden so maybe Uncle Jim and I can get some  stickers for our lemons.  We'll just have to wait and see. 

Menton's first  Lemon Festival was organized in 1895 when clever hoteliers in Menton held  a parade to liven things up and amuse and attract the rich and famous people who spent winters here.  Records show that even Queen Victoria attended the first Lemon Festival.  It makes sense since she stayed at the pretty Chalet des Rosiers and maybe she was a little bored and missed England.

The highlight of the Lemon Festival are by far the  gigantic  sculptures made of oranges and lemons spread around in the pretty Jardins Biovès.

How to attach all those lemons to all those sculptures?  With elastics!  It's a snap.

In the months leading up to the Festival, iron workers  create big metal forms in different shapes and sizes and then eighty workers take over, climb up on ladders and cover the forms from top to bottom in lemons and oranges.  Since the lemons from Menton are so valuable, all the sculptures are made of cheaper, imported Spanish and Italian lemons and oranges.

A massive 145 tonnes of oranges and lemons are attached to forms to make hundreds of sculptures every year.  If you take a close look, you'll see that the fruit is attached to the metal forms with elastics.  They use about 500,000 elastics in all.

Even though I love to see all the big lemon sculptures, I can't help but imagine what I could do with all those lemons and oranges after the festival.

Imagine all those big, giant jars of jam...
Citrus for sale in the Menton market