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Lemons Make More Than Limonade (Who Knew?)

For many, February means Carnival, the party-hearty days leading up the depressing deprivation of Lent.

I've always avoided it. Too many people. Too much forced revelry. New Year's Eve on steroids. Completely devoid of meaning except for the bars, restaurants and various who make a pile of dough.

But when I learned that our “big city” Nice has the 4th largest celebration in the world - after Rio, Venice and New Orleans - it felt like my duty as a newbie to the region to go.


I decided on a Bataille des Fleurs (Fight of the Flowers), where lovely ladies parade by on floats and chuck flowers into the crowd and the crowd chucks them back (that’s the fight).


I undecided on that when I read I needed to allow two hours to get through security..


Instead, I opted for La Fête du Citron in Menton – Lemon Fest. It’s the second biggest winter event on the Riviera, after Nice’s carnival and before Monaco’s Formula One. Good enough for this newbie.


Menton used to be a place for old people to retire - and die. The cemetery, high atop a hill overlooking the sea, has the best view in town.


Recently, they’ve done a lot to make it more attractIve to young folks. They had good material to work with. It has the warmest weather in France (after Corsica), since the Alps shelter it from the cold north winds. Ergo all the old people.


This microclimat also mean’s it’s the only place in metropolitan France (ie ex-Outre-mer territories and Corsica) where lemons are grown. Hence in the 19th century, it was named the lemon capital of the world (who awards these titles?).


It’s also called “the pearl of France.” Which is a bit misleading since it is the most Italian town in France, being right on the border (and 30 kilometres east of Nice.)


Back to the lemons. They are so good they have one of those fancy French “AOP” designations. This also makes them expensive – as does the fact that not many French farms grow them anymore (we won’t go into the economic produce wars with Spain, Italy, etc).


They say Menton lemons are more elongated and acidic, making them good for tartes. I bought one and did a taste test with a specimen from my mother-in-law’s garden. I preferred hers, finding the one I’d bought way too tart (is there an etymological connection between “tart” and “tarte”?).


She said the lemon I bought probably wasn’t a real Menton lemon, since all vendeurs are arnaqueurs. (translation: sellers are crooks).


The gullible, trusting American that I am finds this French attitude kinda troubling. But I only try to change what I can and accept what I can’t. Moving on.


Here’s something even this innocent Yank doesn’t believe:


Legend says Eve took the lemon with her from Eden (the Bible says a golden fruit, doesn’t have to be an apple). She and Adam roamed the world until voilà! They ended up in Menton. (right...)


Back to the Fête du Citron. 2024 is the 90th anniversary of the zesty fest, which lasts almost three weeks. It’s now paired with an Orchid Festival (why?) where you can buy orchids, flowers, lemon-based treats and serum made from Snail Spit (again, why?)


Snail Spit Serum

They use 140 tons of fruit to make the sculptures (15 tons) and the floats for the parades (the rest of the tons). 750 elastic bands attach the fruit.


They use oranges too, for contrast with the lemons.


I can’t attend the parade (le corso), so I tour the 13 sculptures in the Jardins de Biovès.


This year the festival’s theme is (surprise!) the Olympics. Check out the SFX of panting from les rameurs (the rowers). The guy in front is a dead ringer for my pal Jim Hake.


What is the fate of the fruit after the festival?


They’re sorted by hand and the non-rotten ones – about 2/3 - are sold at the Sunday market cheap (3 euros/kilo vs 5-8 normal price). They’re used mostly for confiture or jellies.


So after a pleasant 45 minutes of snapping photos (which no longer involves snapping), I bought lemon soap on a string, lemon confiture, one lemon and best of all – mimosas.


Of course, there is a Mimosa Festival. But even of courser, I found out about after it was over. I hadn’t seen any in Antibes, so was happy to find them in Menton.


The flower-seller in the marché gave me detailed instructions (closer to a lecture) on how to care for the canary-yellow flowers:

  • Whack their woody stems with a hammer, like you would hortensia (hydrangea) or lilas (lilac). You have to crack them open so they can drink.

  • At night, put them outside in the cool air.

  • In the morning, put them in warm water.


At last.

Here was the meaning I'd been looking for.


The mimosas were a metaphor - for me, in France. I’m whacking my woody stems – how I did things before, how I wrote and walked and breathed and dealt with daily irritations – cracking myself open to imbibe new waters. Alternating bracing air with soothing comfort.


That’s what I love about Spring. And the beefcake made out of lemons ain't bad, either.

Le Papillon - the breaststroke, baby

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