Hay Festival: Sicilian lemons

Oranges may signal death in the Godfather movies but it is the lemon that is inextricably linked with the beginnings of the Mafia in Sicily, said Helena Attlee, gardening historian and travel writer.

In her “citrus treasure hunt” across Italy, Attlee came across fascinating tales of speculation and organised crime in the lemon gardens of Sicily. In the 1860s, the Italian island was the centre of lemon-growing in Europe.

Sicilian farmers won the contract for supplying the British Royal Navy with lemons. It was a lucrative business; farmers could become millionaires. But growing lemons is an expensive business. You need irrigation, land and lemon trees, and then you have to wait years before your first crops comes to fruition.

Farmers became paranoid about losing crops to vandals so the wealthier and savvier famers set up protection services, including wardens, for their own farms. For a fee they would extend their services to less well-off lemon growers – but if you didn’t pay the fee these same wardens would vandalise your crops and wells.

The protection racket was born. While there may be little money left in lemon growing in Sicily, the Mafia learned much of their criminal craft in the lemon groves.