Orthodox rabbis flock to Calabria every year to harvest etrogs for Succot

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Orthodox rabbis flock to Calabria every year to harvest etrogs for Succot

The Calabrian etrog has a distinctive shape and fragrance

The enchanting Riviera del Cedro lies in the north-west of Calabria, right on the toe of Italy’s boot. It is a region teeming with ancient castles perched precariously on mountainsides, fortresses jutting out of rocks and a glistening emerald sea. Brightly-painted houses cling to hilltops as if, at any moment, a slight gust of wind could blow them away.

Tucked away in the relatively unknown town of Santa Maria del Cedro lies a hidden gem; the Museo del Cedro, museum of the citron, or etrog, as we Jews know it. Settled between the glorious Tyrrhenian Sea and the mountains of Calabria, etrogs benefit from the hot sea air and the cool mountain breeze. Calabria, with its fertile soil and temperate climate, provides the ideal conditions for cultivating the cedro.

For rabbis all over the world the cedro or etrog is known as etz hadar, the precious fruit of the Garden of Eden. The Calabrian etrog, known for its distinctive shape and fragrant scent, is intertwined with the history of Jewish communities that flourished here more than 400 years ago. In 1541 the last Jews were ordered to leave or convert to Catholicism. A Jewish presence has not been visible in this area since the middle of the 16th century.

Originally known as Cipollina, the town changed its name in 1968 to honour the importance of the precious diamomd citron renowned among rabbis worldwide for its perfect shape. In July and August rabbis from every corner of the world flock to Santa Maria del Cedro to examine, cut and cultivate the etrogs, ready for the festival of Succot. This tradition is beautifully illustrated in the movie When Life Begins, which was shown at the UK Jewish Film Festival last year.

Museo del Cedro

As we drive through a valley lined with citrus and olive groves into Santa Maria del Cedro, we spot some farmers and ask them about the importance of the cedro to the town. They hand us a beautifully-shaped etrog and tell us to visit the Cedro Museum, nestled in the 15th century Palazzo Gabriele Marino, also known as the Carcere dell’Impresa (workhouse prison). Here, the history of the etrog, its symbolic importance and its ties to Jewish culture are celebrated.

As we explore the Museo del Cedro, we are invited to reflect on the significance of the etrog as more than just a fruit. Consuela, our guide, explains that the cedro or etrog is a symbol of the “unwavering spirit of the Jewish people.” The museum offers visitors a glimpse into the cultivation, harvesting and preparation of the cedro, as well as its profound importance in Jewish ritual.

I ask Consuela, “Why here? Why are the cedri / etrogs in this tiny village so special to the rabbis?” With a smile full of pride, she tells me: “Because we have the most perfect etrog, the diamonds of all the etrogs in the entire world.” These are by all accounts the most sought after and the most precious etrogs worldwide.

After a short film and explanation, we are invited to sample the different products and are astonished by the versatility of the fruit we have only ever equated with a once-a-year use during Succot. We sample etrog cordial, etrog liquor, etrog oil, candied fruit, jam and etrog biscuits, as well as beauty products and cosmetics. Later we notice how etrog granita is a popular source of refreshment in cafes and restaurants along the coast.

The taste and aroma are reminiscent of intense lemon with a hint of sweet freshness. As well as its sensory appeal, the etrog is said to be bursting with anti-aging properties. It is staggering to see how many beautiful products can be made from one relatively unknown and mysterious fruit and we wonder why more products are not made from this precious fruit beyond this town.

As we leave the Museo del Cedro armed with etrog goodies, we celebrate not only the fruit’s importance but also the enduring strength of Jewish culture. In a region devoid of Jews, the annual appearance of rabbis to harvest this ancient fruit bridges the past with the present. I hug my very own diamond etrog in my arms knowing that this year, it will bring a slice of Calabrian warmth to the festival of Succot.



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