The origins of bergamot are still shrouded in mystery: according to a fascinating but unlikely hypothesis, it would be a fruit from the Canary Islands, brought to Spain by Columbus. From there, from the city of Berga, near Barcelona, in the end it would have reached Calabria in 1400. Other scholars believe that the home of bergamot is China or Greece or even the city of Pergamum in Asia Minor, from which the name of the plant would derive. There are those who claim that it was the Moor of Spain to sell a branch of bergamot to the Valentino lords of Reggio Calabria, which in turn implanted it on a sour orange tree. In any case, the link between the plant and the territory of Reggio dates back to the fourteenth century, being already known at the time the existence in southern Calabria of a fruit unique in nature, the “limon pusillus calaber”.
The same mystery lingers even as far as the etymology of the name is concerned: among all the hypotheses, the most likely is “beg – armundi”, a Turkish word meaning ” Lord’s pear”, due to the pear-like shape of the bergamot fruit.
For a long time the bergamot was considered only an ornamental plant that was displayed in the gardens of the noblest families of Italy, starting with the Medici. Commercial use of bergamot is related to a man from Piedmont, Gian Paolo Feminis that, first, during a trip to Calabria in 1708, drew the essence of bergamot and used it in Cologne, where he had emigrated, to produce a perfume, the ”water admirabilis “, immediately boosting a high demand for its aroma at once delicate and intense. Since then, demand has grown leading to the development of cultivation and the extraction of the essence. The first bergamot cultivation in Calabria, in the Giunchi location, dates back to 1750 and was introduced by Nicola Parisi. Throughout the second half of the eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth century the economy of Reggio Calabria was linked to the cultivation and extraction of the essence of bergamot. A new profession was born, i.e. the “spirit” or “nuance” master, able to treat and select fruits, work the skin and extract the essence. This was done by hand, using natural sponges to shoot out the nectar from the skin of the bergamot, which was collected in a clay pot called “concolina” and decanted.
In the mid-nineteenth century the invention of the so-called ” Calabrian machine “, designed by Nicola Barillà, caused a radical change. The machine, made up of two cups with spikes and blades that scraped the skin of the fruit, the same way of today’s “peelers”, guaranteed high yields and a fine quality of the essence. The procedure, even if with more advanced machinery, is still widely used today.
The booming economy of the bergamot was stopped in the 60s and 80s by large chemical international companies which began a campaign of disinformation and pseudo-science that supported rumors about the harmfulness of cosmetic products containing bergamot in order to promote the use of synthetic essences.
Today bergamot has reconquered the space it deserves in the medical and health realms, thanks to many scientific studies that have proven is beneficial effects on health and, at the same time, have reassured on the safety of the essential oil.