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Citrus review by Financial Times

Simply the zest

By Ian Irvine
Published: September 29 2007 03:00 | Last updated: September 29 2007 03:00
Non-fiction

A short but brilliant account of 6,000 years of citrus fruits should be devoured with fervour - but a history of beans is stodgier fare. By Ian Irvine

Citrus: A History
by Pierre Laszlo
University of Chicago Press $25, 239 pages
Beans: A History
by Ken Albala
Berg £14.99, 261 pages
FT bookshop price: £11.99

"Do you know the country where the lemon trees bloom/ Where the golden oranges glow among dark leaves?" The citruses in Goethe's poem about Italy symbolise the country's warmth and abundance. In northern Europe these fruits have always been associated with health, prosperity and luxurious ease. Today, a billion trees cultivated across the world produce 100 million tons of citrus annually. More than 1,500 species exist, including the Clementine, created in France in the 19th century, and the Ugli, developed in California in the 1940s. The ease with which they can be crossed is still producing new commercial varieties.

Native to Asia, citruses were first cultivated in Persia. Seeds more than 6,000 years old have been found in Iraq. Alexander the Great brought them to the Mediterranean. The Arabs' conquest of southern Spain brought cultivation to a peak in Andalucia, through application of their irrigation and horticultural skills.

With the discovery of the New World the citrus found its perfect habitat in Brazil, Florida and California. The economic consequences for these regions were huge. In 1908 the California Fruit Growers Exchange, suffering from low prices due to overproduction, hired adman Albert Lasker, who came up with the idea of marketing orange juice. Today more than $9 billion of OJ is sold in the US alone.

Pierre Laszlo's short but brilliant book ranges over citrus's eventful history and describes its global importance in agriculture, industry, religion, painting, literature, nutrition and architecture. He also provides some excellent recipes.

The commodity history is a recent publishing genre - Henry Hobhouse's compelling Seeds of Change: Five Plants That Transformed Mankind only appeared in 1986, but has proved highly successful. Biographies of cod, nutmeg and porcelain have all been bestsellers. By ploughing a deep but narrow passage through the past, such histories can, at best, offer unfamiliar views and make unexpected connections.

Laszlo is a professor of chemistry and author of a fine history of salt. His scientific explanations - the fruit's importance as a source of vitamin C, for example - are excellent, but he is also equally lucid in other fields: the purpose of the orangery at the palace of Versailles; the role of the peeled lemon in Dutch still-lifes; and why the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles requires an etrog citron. His erudition, worn lightly, is impressive, with the odd blemish - though a Frenchman can be forgiven for thinking Hampton Court palace was built to imitate Versailles.

The bean is just as good a subject for popular history: it was one of the earliest foodstuffs cultivated when farming began 10,000 years ago and has been a vital protein source in bad times. In Beans, Ken Albala looks at the origins and cultivation of the many varieties of peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas. He also explores the disdain with which they have often been regarded for their association with flatulence and poverty.

Though the chapter on soya, the most widely grown bean on the planet, is excellent, Albala lacks Laszlo's wide frame of reference and speculative daring. Simple errors cast doubt on his reliability. For example, the famous slogan was not "Heinz meanz beanz", but "Beanz meanz Heinz". Albala praises the web as a tool of research. Some Google-browsing would have detected those mistakes.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007