Sheila Dillon savours a delicious oddity full of pithy, eccentric facts to whet a gourmet's appetite.
Citrus is the most recently published example of a modern genre - history told through a particular ingredient: salt, spices, cod, vanilla, quinine (as the flavour in tonic water) and more. Some have been bestsellers. Some have been scholarly and well-written. But it seems the fatter we get, the greater our consumption of processed food, the more we want to read about food in everything from ghostwritten glossy tomes by TV chefs to these new histories. Sales in all genres are highest in the two countries with the worst diets and most barren food cultures - the US and Britain. There must be PhD theses being written on the subject all over the Western world.
But Citrus is a delicious oddity that doesn't quite fit these genres. It is a history. It is, in parts, about citrus - but in much the same way that Thomas Browne's Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial is about its nominal subject, the discovery of a Bronze Age burial urn in Norfolk.
The 2,000-word footnote to a recipe the author gives for orange wine on page 180 provides one of many examples. It has nothing to do with orange wine or citrus in any form, but orange wine, the author says, acts upon him "as a Proustian reminiscence of an adorable and memorable lady, whose life might initiate a novella". The record-challenging footnote is his Proustian reminiscence. The wine recipe is given in the chapter "Preserving nature, or changing it?", which begins with the question: "Do we save artefacts out of concern for our own mortality?" The author isn't particularly interested in the answer, but in this work it's the journey and not the arrival that matters.
Pierre Laszlo is what Dr Doolittle called a good noticer, a connoisseur of life's quirks and particularities, of all that is glorious in the everyday. He grew up in France during the war and food shortages, an experience that sharpened his appetite and interest in food. By the age of ten, "I knew that food for the body is, also and more importantly, food not only for the mind, but also for the soul".
In a former life the author taught chemistry at various distinguished universities in the US and on the Continent. Now in retirement, in writing this book he has set out, he says, to emulate the Chu Lu or The Orange Record , published in 1178, the first ever monograph on citrus, written by Han Yen-Chih, the governor of Wenchow in Chekiang, China. The book's prologue is the author's letter to Han Yen-Chih. The epilogue is Han Yen- Chih's ghostly reaction to this 21st-century act of homage - bookended oddities in a volume replete with them.
Between the two the eccentrically organised history fascinates. The book sets out to be a chronicle of the push of citrus to the West "as it affected not only the world's economy, but its cultures as well". The earliest evidence cited for the cultivation of citrus comes from seeds found during archaeological excavations in Mesopotamia dating back to 4000BC. But Laszlo begins his documented account with their cultivation in Persia and with Alexander the Great bringing them back to Greece around 300BC. The early chapter on the transplantation to Europe documents the role of religion in spreading citrus: Judaism responsible for the circum- Mediterranean spread, Islam for bringing the plants into the Iberian peninsula - along with the sophisticated techniques of irrigation and cultivation developed by Arab scientists and technicians. These techniques Laszlo believes were responsible for the agricultural prosperity that enriched the merchants of al-Andalus who then invested their profits in land around the towns, leading to the dominance of towns over countryside and to ten centuries of economic good times and the growth of cities such as Seville, Valencia, Granada and Zaragoza, each with its own citrus belt.
The European story is quickly told. Much of the rest of the book is an account of the more recent history of citrus but documented in less linear fashion with a great emphasis on the development of agribusiness in California and Florida, with some serious asides about Brazil (another country in which Laszlo has lived). At the end of the six chapters the reader has been educated about who controls the world's citrus industry and how it got that way. It was the US taxpayer that did it, paying for the land-grant colleges that did the research that underpinned the growth of the modern behemoths such as Sucocitrico (the largest citrus company in the world), Coca-Cola and Louis Dreyfus. Capitalism in the raw - what Laszlo calls "the cosy relationship between citrus and capitalism" - is starkly painted. It was thus, he says, that the "Jeffersonian dream came to an end", although looking now at the land of the neoconservatives it seems hardly possible that Thomas Jefferson's vision of an America of equals made prosperous from the cultivation of the land was once a vision widely shared in the US.
The reader will also have learnt by this point (in a nod to the author's former profession as teacher of chemistry and the one practical bit of advice in the whole book - except for the recipes) of the best way to adulterate orange juice. Successful agribusiness criminals do it with invert sugars, those "whose sucrose has been cleaved, chemically, into glucose and fructose" plus the addition of a little partly hydrolysed beet sugar - almost undetectable.
The final six chapters are a long muse on the symbolism of citrus: Goethe, Wallace Stevens ("the poet of citrus par excellence"), Roger Vadim, Lorca, Byron (who in his poem The Island wrote of the "the moist shaddock" (a grapefruit) being held "to his parched mouth"), the Lady of the Unicorn tapestries, Zubaran, Cezanne, Matisse (his A Vase with Oranges "nudges us to a dialectic of the outside and the inside, of what appears and what is real".)
This book is altogether charming, eccentric, erudite, and definitely worth the price.
Sheila Dillon presents BBC Radio 4's The Food Programme .
Citrus: A History
Author - Pierre Laszlo
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Pages - 262
Price - £14.00
ISBN - 9780226470269