MILAN — The life of Angelo Adduci has always been infused with the smell of citrons.
“I grew up among the citron trees cultivated by my family,” he tells The Times of Israel.
Adduci, 56, is the president of the Consorzio del Cedro di Calabria (Calabria Citron Consortium), the association of local citron farmers. He is a small farmer himself, and lives in the town of Santa Maria del Cedro, at the core of the Riviera dei Cedri. It’s an area about 40 kilometers (25 miles) long on the shores of the Calabria region, the toe of Italy’s boot.
For centuries, the farmers of the Riviera have grown citrons that are considered among the best in the world: the cedro qualità liscio Diamante, or the “Smooth Diamante citron.” These citrons, named after the town of Diamante, are among the most requested as etrogim for the festival of Sukkot.
Every year, during the summer, several rabbis from all over the world move to the Riviera to harvest the best fruits and send them to Jewish communities in the US, Israel, Russia, Canada, UK and the rest of the world.
The Calabrian etrogim are very popular and are especially in demand within the Chabad-Lubavitch communities, whose late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson recommended using this specific variety for use on the Sukkot holiday.
In the last decades, six or seven different groups have been settling in Calabria over the summer, totaling about 20 or 30 people. They rent out local houses, including one to serve as a synagogue for a daily minyan.
The Riviera features a unique microclimate, where the warm air from the sea meets the cold air from the mountains, creating the ideal habitat for the delicate citron trees. The region’s friable soil is very suitable for the species’s short roots.
This year, however, a frost destroyed over 90% of the crop.
“The citron trees are very fragile, they can’t survive temperatures below -4 degrees Celsius (25 Fahrenheit), and in this past winter it got to -8 (17.6 Fahrenheit). We have planted over 4,000 new trees to replace the ones that died, but it takes four years for them to start bearing fruits,” Adduci sighs.
To the local people of Riviera dei Cedri, the etrogim are as important as they are to the rabbis, as they are of key economic value. Calabria remains one of Italy’s poorest and least developed regions, and the Jewish demand for etrogim represents an important boost for the economy of the Riviera. The rabbis pay between 3 and 12 euros ($3.50 – $14) apiece. The rest of the crop is sold to the food or the cosmetic industry for 1 or 2 euros per kilogram (2.2 lbs).
“Our ancestors, grandparents and parents have supported their families growing citron trees generation after generation. There was a time when parents would marry off their children only after a good citron crop, to be able to bear the costs of the celebrations and dowries,” Adduci recalls.
He highlights how he has witnessed the rabbis arriving to the town of Santa Maria del Cedro since he was a child.
“We called them ‘barbet’ — in our dialect that means ‘man with a beard’ — and their arrival was a reason to celebrate. They always brought presents, cigarettes for the adults, candies and the fabulous American chewing gum for the children. We have always considered them part of our community,” says Adduci.
For the past few decades, the tourism industry has also represented a major source of income for the area, but the locals’ approach to tourists has been very different.
“I remember when tourists started to arrive here in the ’70s. Many people almost felt they were invading the land. This never happened with the rabbis — they have never been considered foreigners,” he says.
He adds that for local people it is also very important to respect Jewish traditions.
“For example, farmers are aware of the kashrut requirements, so when they invite the rabbis to sit at their table they just offer fruit or vegetables, and they know that the rabbis will use their own silverware. Nobody gets offended,” he points out.
At the beginning of September, the local Citron Museum featured an event where the rabbis enacted the most important customs of the festival of Sukkot, like shaking the four species — among them the etrog — and explained them to the local people.
“It was the second year in a row that we did it, and it was a very powerful moment,” says Adduci.
A slightly less idyllic picture of the relationship between the rabbis and the farmers is painted by one the founders of the citron consortium and a former mayor of Santa Maria del Cedro, Francesco Maria Fazio.
“We started the consortium to be better organized to negotiate with the rabbis,” explains Fazio. “For the farmers, the ability to rely on the fact that they will sell the citrons to the rabbis is the equivalent of having a credit card, and usually every farmer works with a specific rabbi.”
“However,” he says, “the rabbis sometimes sell the fruit for 10 or 20 times what they paid to buy it, and I thought it was important to work together to protect the farmers’ interests. Otherwise the rabbis could do as they pleased.”
Still, says Fazio, relations between the groups are good. “I often also took part in Shabbat celebrations, it was wonderful,” he says.
Revealing more problematic sides of the story were also the recent comments made by Chabad Rabbi Berel Lazar, chief rabbi of Russia, who visits the region every year to purchase the etrogim for his community.
Speaking to a JTA reporter, Lazar described the relationship with the farmers as “of friendship and mutual respect” but “sadly not of trust.”
He also mentioned the influence of the local mafia to manipulate the business, by pressuring farmers into trying to sell non-kosher etrogim. In order to be considered kosher, an etrog needs to be neither grafted nor hybridized with any other species, and at least egg-sized, yellow, elliptical, intact, with a tough peel.
Fazio has had his own share of mafia problems. In 2012, the ‘ndrangheta — as the local mafia, among the most ruthless in Italy, is called — burned down his family hotel after he refused to surrender it to their control. Since then he has rebuilt it, turning it into a luxury hotel that has become a symbol of entrepreneurship and courage against mafia. He is certain that the ‘ndrangheta is not involved in the citron market.
“When it comes to our land, it is probably true that mafia culture is very widespread, to the point that maybe we could say that to some degree there is some influence of it on everyone’s mindset, probably myself included, in spite of the fact that I lived for decades in Northern Italy,” says Fazio.
“I think I fully realized how mafia influences our mentality only after they hit [my hotel]. However, I am positive that there is no actual mafia involvement in the citron market. Leaving any other consideration aside, it is too much of a niche business to be interesting for them,” he adds.
There is no evidence for mafia involvement in the citron market, confirms journalist and mafia expert Arcangelo Badolati, a reporter at the local paper Gazzetta del Sud.
“In that [geographical] area, the ‘ndrangheta is active in other businesses, like tourism and drugs, but not in agriculture,” says Badolati.
Berel Lazar’s father, Rabbi Moshe Lazar, or “Rabbino Mosè”, as he is known in the Riviera, agrees with Fazio and Badolati.
Based in Milan, the 83-year-old has been going to Calabria every year since 1965. He is worried about the grave consequences of the frost that decimated the etrogim.
“I have never seen such a devastation, although some say that something similar happened in 1956,” says Lazar.
But he has only words of praise for the local farmers.
“We are like a family. I have seen children growing up, getting married and having their own children. They have always helped us and we never had any problem,” Lazar says.
“The etrogim have been part of these lands for 2,000 years,” concludes Adduci. “The tradition tells us that they were brought here by Jews who established themselves in the area. For us, the rabbis are part of our landscape, together with the citron orchards, the farmers and the sea.”