Fruit and Veg

A chef's guide to bergamot

Written by Tom Moggach
November 15, 2018

It's the "green gold" of Calabria, a rare citrus fruit from southern Italy. Demand is surging for this fragrant ingredient.

In the UK, you'll probably know bergamot from Earl Grey tea, which gets its distinctive flavour from bergamot essential oil. 

Around 90% of the orchards lie on the Ionian coast in the province of Reggio Calabria in the south of Italy. The fruit grown in this microclimate has been awarded Protected Designation of Origin status (PDO).  

Fruit And Vegetable Market Chefs Guide To Bergamot Wide On Tree

In recent years, chefs and caterers have been rediscovering this fantastic ingredient. Scroll down to see recipe ideas and kitchen inspiration. 

Currently around 80-85% of the harvest is used to make the essential oil, which is then added to cosmetics, soaps, shampoos, candles, bubble bath, insecticides and more. (To learn more about the essential oil see the Cilione website.)

The extraction of bergamot essential oil started around the middle of the 17th Century. The process is now high-tech, but the traditional method involved rubbing the skin onto a natural sponge. 200 kilos of fruit was required to make one litre of essential oil. 

In the last few decades, production of bergamot essential oil reduced in the face of competition from cheaper synthetic alternatives. 

Fruit And Vegetable Market Chefs Guide To Bergamot La Costiera

Key facts

> Bergamot is botanically named Citrus bergamia. The fruit's exact origins are unclear but it may be a cross between a bitter orange and a lime. More information on the history of bergamot here

> The bergamot season runs from November to January. Last year's crop was around 25,000 tonnes; forecasts for 2018-19 are 27,500 tonnes.

> There are various varieties of bergamot, such as Femminello, Castagnaro and Fantastico.

> The trade body for the fruit is the Consorzio di Tutela del Bergamotto di Reggio Calabria.

> There is evidence that the fruit was introduced to the Court of Versailles around 1700 as an ingredient for a "aqua mirabilis" - an early form of cologne or perfume. 

> Bergamot is believed to be helpful at lowering "bad" cholesterol. Try drinking 100ml of bergamot juice, mixed with water, ten minutes before a meal. It also has antiseptic, antioxidant and antibacterial properties. 

> In aromatherapy, the fruit is prized for its uplifting and calming properties. 

> 15-20% of the total crop is sold as fresh fruit. Of this, 99% is squeezed for juice; the remainder for culinary use. The vast majority of the crop is made into essential oil. 40% goes to the aromatherapy market; 50% for fragrances; 10% for flavouring, such as Earl Grey tea.

Growing and harvesting

Bergamot growers have had a tough time over the last few decades. The bulk of their crop was sold to make essential oils, but cheaper synthetic alternatives depressed demand. 

According to Alberto Arigoa from Cilione, a company that processes the fruit, Calabria had around 4,000 hectares of bergamot orchards four decades ago. This dropped to around 1,300 hectares twenty years later. But there is now increased demand for the fruit and total production is now 2,000 hectares.

Most growers concentrate on the variety Fantastico, a higher yielding modern hybrid of the two older varieties Femminello and Castagnaro. These are grafted onto rootstock for the orchard. 

Fruit And Vegetable Market Chefs Guide To Bergamot On Tree
Fruit And Vegetable Market Chefs Guide To Bergamot Cilione On Tree

On the market

Your best bet for fresh bergamot are the wholesalers French Garden (020 7498 0277 / enquiries@frenchgarden.com) and European Salad Company (Tess Knowles: 07766 654732 / tess@eurosalad.co.uk). Both import bergamot direct from Italy. 

Fruit And Vegetable Market Chefs Guide To Bergamot French Garden

Kitchen inspiration

Make a distinction between the zest and juice. In Calabria, the zest is most widely used for cakes and pastries. Artisan food business Pizzimenti use it in their biscuits, chocolates and dried figs. Fazzolari add the zest to their torrone, a type of soft nougat. Here's a recipe for bergamot madeleines. 

Bergamot is a popular ingredient in cocktails. A new product is Italicus, based on a recipe from the 1850's. You can easily use bergamot to make your own twist on limoncello.

Fruit And Vegetable Market Chefs Guide To Bergamot Italicus

Used creatively, bergamot is a very versatile ingredient. "So many possibilities ..." explains food writer Catherine Phipps, author of 'Citrus'. The obvious candidates, she explains, are sorbets, gelato and similar creations. "It perfumes a roast chicken or rice beautifully. It mixes really well with rose ... [and is] good with cream cheese like burrata." This is her recipe for bergamot and rose turkish delight pavlova. 

Bergamot is a good match for seafood and also stronger meats such as game. The juice can be added as a souring agent to sauces and dressings. It can also be used for ceviche. Here's a recipe for octopus scented with bergamot. 

This dish below is grilled octopus with potato cream, parsley oil and burnt bergamot peel from restaurant La Pavona sul Sofa

Fruit And Vegetable Market Chefs Guide To Bergamot Octopus La Pavona Sul Sofa

Bergamot zest and juice can add a racy note to pasta dishes. Here's a recipe for bergamot risotto. The zest can be used to flavour stuffed pasta. 

Here is a beautiful dish from chef Domenico Giannico, which uses red prawns and bergamot. 

Fruit And Vegetable Market Chefs Guide To Bergamot Giardino Broquier

Below is a dish of tagiolini with sea urchin and a dusting of liquorice powder. (Credit to Dolcemente Inventado - more of her bergamot recipes here).

Fruit And Vegetable Market Chefs Guide To Bergamot Tagiolini Dolcemente Inventado

If this has whetted your appetite, order yourself a copy of Helena Attlee's book 'The Land Where Lemons Grow' - this is the definitive book on the wonderful world of Italian citrus. 

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