Friday, 30 April 2010

Strange Fruit

When I was a TV researcher (or at least, an employed one), I filled the inevitable lulls in my productivity with arguing with strangers on the internet and writing arcane articles on Wikipedia (a compendium of my interests can be found here ).

Apart from its strange but compelling written-by-a-dispassionate-alien tone, the best thing about Wiki is its seductive randomness, whereby the reader is drawn, despite himself, into a world of utterly inessential marginalia. In the excellent recent C4 doc where Boris-featured media ogre Rachel Johnson took over The Lady magazine, her first act was to remove the random articles (on the history of the cucumber, or alien abductions) that seemed to jar with the title's readership. But the readers protested, en masse, in a flurry of lavender-scented post. They loved the randomness, it was hastily reinstalled, and really, it was the most modern thing about The Lady. It was Wikipedia pre-Wikipedia.

Anyway, clicking lazily around from the excellent article on Corfu (and the equally readable if historically dubious one on the Corfiot Italians), I came across this strange fruit: the Greek Citron, or Corfu Etrog.

I say I came across it, though I spent a large chunk of my post-A-level holidays chopping them into slices for bad bomba-laced cocktails in a hopefully-now-defunct Ipsos "Irish pub". At the time, I thought it was just a hideous, over-pithy lemon. But apparently not:

It's a fruit in its own right, and a rather precious one. It's considered essential to the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, and until the mid-nineteenth century, Corfu cornered the market in their production and sale. It's barely remembered now, but in the 19th Century, Corfu was a central spoke of the Jewish world. Rabbinical conferences were held here, and 1/3 of the town's population were Jewish, a polyglot mixture of 'Italkiot' Calabrian-speakers, post-Reconquista Spanish expellees and Greek-speaking 'Romaniotes' dating back to, probably, Hellenistic mass conversions.

But relations with the Orthodox peasantry were, at times- especially Good Fridays- fraught, and a Campiello pogrom in 1891 saw the rest of the Jewish world boycott Corfu Citrons. So Corfu's unique fruit trees were grubbed up, and replaced by vines, or kumquats, or yet more olives. Yet a few feral stragglers survived...

I only know this because a couple of trees survive, whether by accident or design, in my family's tiny smallholding in the 'unwritten' Northwestern hamlet of Pigi. So when I rather snottily corrected the Wiki article to disprove the claim that 'citrons are no longer grown on Corfu', I was rather surprised to receive, within the day, a business offer from a Colorado businessman to export them, for profit. Apparently, a good etrog can sell for $80-150. Each. Gosh.

Further haggling by email has proved inconclusive. He wants them approved in the US after shipment, after having been individually wrapped in bubble wrap and flown over; I'd rather have them graded by a rabbi in Corfu then sent; he disputes the rabbi's bona fides... It's probably too much hassle, despite the (Gerald) Durrellesque comedy of errors it would no doubt entail. And yet... there's something weirdly compelling about the idea. $100 for a single fruit seems an incredible business margin, but then the majority of fruits are too imperfect to stand muster.

Either way, it's a fascinating example of the way history cannot be overwritten; how even after Nazi genocide, a long-lost community's ghost is still visible in feral trees, standing forlorn testimony to a forgotten past. Like anywhere in Greece, Corfu's history is stranger and more diverse than the statist narrative allows. Perhaps a future Ipsos tourist reading this will forgive his G'n'T's over-pithy slice.

On a slightly different note, I've just finished (re)reading this, and I recommend it heartily.

The takeaway fact: mid-19th century Corfu had Europe's second highest murder rate, after Corsica. After dealing with local 'professional renovators', I'm beginning to see why...

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