The bergamot farmers of Calabria, Italy, are a skilled and proud community. Their relationship with the land stretches back to the eighth century BC. Little wonder, since bergamot health benefits include improved heart health and lower cholesterol.June 20, 2022 2:22 pm September 10, 2018 10:52 pm
Once upon a time, in Calabria…
The ancestors of today’s bergamot farmers migrated to the region from ancient Greece. However, it wasn’t until the 1860s that the first bergamot gardens were planted in the villages of Calabria, many of which date from before the Italian unification.
Calabria has its own special microclimate. A thin strip of countryside nestled above Sicily and bordered to the east and west by the calm, warm waters of the Mediterranean, it’s perfect for growing bergamot.
Only a climate like this allows the skin of the bergamot fruit to develop a unique oil, which is prized the world over for its aroma. Much as the Champagne region in France lays claim to the finest wines, Calabria has a monopoly on precious bergamot oil.
In the 1920s, Calabrian bergamot oil became one of the most important ingredients in boutique perfumes. During a time when Europe was undergoing huge changes in terms of social institutions and culture, perfume became an unmistakable symbol of fashion, class and sophistication. To this day, bergamot oil lends a certain prestige to many high-quality fragrances, evoking the high society parties of generations past.
Thanks to perfumery, demand for bergamot oil soared in the twentieth century. It raised the value of one hectare of bergamot trees to around $350,000 in today’s money. Fertile Calabrian soil ensured that the hardy bergamot orchards continued to grow, as did the local economy. In a region where the locals had sometimes struggled to make ends meet, the sudden boom in bergamot came as a blessing.
However, times were changing. Many young people left the region, boarding a train called ‘the Arrow of the South’ to seek their fortunes in the city. Like so many others in Europe, they believed that working the land was a life of hardship. A city job, meanwhile, would provide a stable income and an easier way of life.
In 1931, the Calabrian bergamot industry began to operate through a syndicate. Farmers sold their bergamot to producers and exporters who could sell the oil on an international scale.
Although some farmers chose to operate independently, the vast majority worked as part of this collective. While it wasn’t a perfect system, it helped the farmers to guarantee the two things that perfumers were most interested in: exceptional quality and a stable price.
The bergamot monopoly
The syndicate brought prosperity to the region, but it was too good to last. In 1965, the courts ruled that the Calabrian syndicate held too great a monopoly over the bergamot industry. It came as a huge blow and the syndicate fought the decision in the courts for the next four years.
However, the money to finance such a legal battle, and the region’s fighting spirit, eventually dried up. The farmers needed to provide for their families and took to planting vineyards instead.
The number of bergamot trees in Calabria began to dwindle, and by 1980, two-thirds had disappeared. They were replaced by lemons and grapes, which also grew well in the region. However, demand didn’t match the opportunities that bergamot had offered.
Some formerly successful bergamot farmers were unable to make a living off the new crops and fell into dire straits, scrambling for any work they could find. Some were better able to adapt to the new situation and began raising livestock like horses and goats.
However, nothing captured the heart of the region like bergamot. Like the scent of the oil, the fruit had infused their heritage and culture. Linking their orchards to the highest echelons of society, bergamot was not simply a business opportunity. It had become part of the Calabrian identity.