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Citrus x limon
Fête du Citron, Menton, Cote d'Azur
The 90th celebration (cancelled in 2021 and 2022 due to Covid) is scheduled for February 17th - 3rd March 2024.
An extraordinary spectacle that has been held on the Cote d'Azur since the 1934, the Fête du Citron is a celebration, not just of lemons, but of other citrus fruits (agrumes) associated with the region.
Generally taking place for three weeks during February, but sometimes extending to the beginning of March, the Fête du Citron has grown to attract huge numbers of visitors - around 240,00 in 2020.
Offering a number of different exhibitions and events, which are held in the city's streets and public gardens, the central attraction is an enormous themed display - the 'Exposition des Motifs d'Agrumes' (Citrus Exhibition) constructed in the town's Biovès gardens. It takes the form of giant sculptures, which change each year according to the chosen theme, which are surrounded by elaborate patterns on the ground, also made entirely from citrus fruit.
With a different theme each year, the 2024 celebration is festival is entitled 'D'Olympie a Menton' (from Olympia to Menton)
The displays are illuminated at night - the 'Jardins de Lumières' proving extremely popular as visitor attractions.
The giant citrus sculptures consist of metal frames, covered with wire netting, to which thousands of individual lemons and oranges are attached individually by means of an elastic band. Some 180 tons of fruit are now used, requiring around 1 million elastic bands and 20,000 hours of work, involving several hundred people.
All the fruit used however is imported from Spain. As fruits degrade they have to be replaced - several metric tons in total during the whole festival. After the festival the fruit that is still in good condition is sold off cheaply.
Other entertainments include a 'Crafts Fair' and Festival of Orchids, musical, folkloric and gastronomic events and displays, as well as visits to botanic gardens - such as that situated at the Palais Carnolès within the town (which now contains Europe's largest citrus collection that's open to the public and which includes many rare and endangered varieties). There are also excursions to citronneraies or citrus groves such as the Orangeraie in the garden of the Grand Hôtel de Venise - and citrus nurseries (pépinières) such as the Casetta orchard located on the hilly outskirts of Menton, and which is home to more than three hundred trees, many of which are lemons.
These citrus nurseries grow and sell an intriguing range of citrus trees and fruit - including the famous Menton lemon and other cultivated lemon varieties, as well as the citron (Citrus medica), with its enormous fruit, varieties of kumquat, orange, lime, grapefruit, pomelo clementine and tangerine and various interesting hybrids. Local growers are extremely knowledgeable and offer visitors guided tours of particular nurseries.
Citrus fruits of many kinds are on sale in the town, and in many different forms - from fresh fruit to jams, honey and other preserves, biscuits, cakes and pastries - including 'le cake au citron du Menton' - and glacéd fruits enticingly displayed in elegant shop windows. Liqueurs and citrus-scented soap and perfume, such as L'Eau de Menton are also on sale.
Each Sunday of the festival, the 'Corso des Fruits D'Or' ('Golden Fruit Parade') is a major attraction, during which enormous floats carrying characters, objects or scenes decorated with huge quantities of citrus fruit process through the streets of Menton and along the Promenade du Soleil on the sea front. Decorated floats also make up the 'Corso Nocturne' ('Moonlit Parade') on Thursdays during the festival.
The Menton lemon
With a very mild climate that proved to be perfect for their cultivation, it is reported that citrus fruits were being grown in Menton in the mid 14th C. The first written records of lemon growing however, are said to date from the mid 15th C.
Production flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries and legislation was introduced (famously by the 'Magistrate of Lemons' - a council appointed in 1671 by the Prince Louis I of Monaco, who benefited from the taxation of lemons) to regulate cultivation and trade. The peak in production was from around 1750 - 1850. Though grown in small terraced orchards, by the 1800s, some 80,000 lemon trees had been established in groves there.
At this time, citrus production was Menton's most important economic activity and some 35 million lemons were exported each year, mostly to England, Germany, Russia and North America.
From the end of the 19th C however, production began to decline, due in part to the small size of the orchards and their fragmentation, but also to disease and bad weather. A disastrous cold spell in 1956 and attack by the fungal pathogen Phoma tracheiphila, which causes a disease known as 'mal secco' (which blocks the flow of sap, drying out the branches, resulting in severe damage to and the death of citrus and particularly lemon trees in the Mediterranean), took a serious toll. Many growers abandoned their plots, while the town continued to expand.
With tourism however, continuing to grow, in the 1980s great efforts were made by local authorities to revitalize and support lemon production and in the 1990s over 5,000 trees were planted.
In 2004 the Association for the Promotion of Menton's Lemons (L’Association pour la Promotion du Citron de Menton—APCM) was formed to increase lemon production.
In 2015, because of its outstanding qualities, the 'Citron de Menton' (Menton lemon) achieved official recognition at European level with IGP (Protected Geographical Indication) status, relating to growers in the municipalities of Menton, Roquebrune Cap-Martin, Sainte-Agnès, Gorbio and Castellar.
Perched on steep hillsides, in orchards that are no more than 7km from the sea and below 390m above sea level, lemons and other citrus fruit prosper on the stone terraces that support them, benefiting in winter from the protection from frost this gives them and from the sun's heat which is captured by the walls ('restanques').
Several varieties of lemon are cultivated in the Menton region.
All are distinguished by their bright yellow colour, an oval, rather than round shape and the fine texture ('finely granulated') of their skin. Celebrated for their unique taste and high juice content, Menton lemons are noted for their fragrance and their peel is an important source of essential oil. Unlike most lemon trees, which typically support fewer than 5 fruit per branch, these trees commonly support up to 15 on each branch. Allowed to ripen on the tree, the lemons are picked by hand between December and June and not treated or coated with wax before sale.
The Citrus Collection of the Palais Carnolès
Over 100 different varieties of citrus tree can be found growing in the garden of the Palais Carnolès. These included (in 2009) 11 different varieties of lemon, 6 types of citron, 20 orange (including Seville and bergamot) and 8 lime varieties, alongside clementines, mandarins, grapefruit and pomelos.
In 2019 the theme was 'Des Mondes Fantastiques'.
The story of the Fête du Citron
The origins of today's elaborate celebration date back to the end of the 19th C. At that time, the French Riviera, with its mild climate, was a fashionable destination for people from other parts of Europe who wanted to escape the cold winter months. Royalty, artists and performers were among those who came to Menton, staying in its grand palaces or having villas built there. It was also a perfect place to grow citrus fruit and had become Europe's most important lemon-growing region.
In 1895, looking for a way of entertaining its visitors, a group of hoteliers suggested a parade. By the following year, this had become popular both with local people and the town's wealthy winter visitors. In 1882, the festival - as it had now become - and which involved a parade of large figures, flower processions, confetti-throwing and general merry-making (characteristic of pre-Lenten celebrations), had been visited by Queen Victoria and ended with an elaborate firework display.In 1929 one hotelier had the idea of organizing an exhibition of flowers and citrus fruit in the gardens belonging to the Hotel Riviera.
A great success, the next year the exhibition, featuring carts covered with lemon and orange trees, took to the streets. This new event - designed very much with tourists in mind - officially became the Lemon Festival in 1934. In 1936 the first exhibition of citrus fruit and flowers took place in the Biovès Gardens.The lemon has now become the emblem of the city of Menton.
A great variety of citrus fruit, both freshly picked and in preserved form are available at the festival
A grapefruit variety at the Palais Carnolès
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