Ah, the Menton Lemon Festival, one of the highlights of my cheffing days or should I say ‘eating my way round everything lemony’!
When life gives you lemons … head to the French Riviera. That is the approach of our friends across the channel, who descend upon the picturesque frontier town of Menton every year for the annual Lemon Festival. This year, the event was scheduled to take place in February. Unfortunately due to the pandemic, it’s been postponed until 2022! So for moment, we’re going to recall the good times!
Menton is the “Pearl of France”
Menton is dubbed the Pearl of France for good reason. This beautiful small town, with a population of a little over 30,000 according to the latest census, is located on the bed of the Mediterranean, linking France with Italy. This blesses Menton with a glorious, temperate climate which is reflected in its produce.
Alongside a vibrant fishing industry, it is celebrated for its growth of citrus fruit. Menton is the biggest exporter of lemons through Europe, gaining kudos for the quality of the fruit as much as the quantity. Michelin-starred chefs across Europe insist on having their citrus imported from Menton. Virtually on the borders of Italy, you can enjoy the delights of both French and Italian food and delicacies (think desserts, cakes, pastries mainly!). The ‘citron de Menton’ is one of the top-rated lemon varieties in the world, slightly bitter but still sweet and with a reasonably fine rind which is perfect for dessert and candy making.
This is at the heart of the annual Fête du Citron – or, for those who do not speak French, Lemon Festival. A carnival of colour and vibrancy to rival Rio de Janeiro, Notting Hill or neighbouring Nice, the Lemon Festival is an unmistakably French event, acknowledged by the Ministry of Culture and dubbed an event of intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO. (Did I mention desserts? Oh yes, I did!)
Fête du Citron Origins
The origins of the Menton Lemon Festival date back to 1928. An enterprising hotel owner decided to capitalise upon the popularity of the town’s citrus produce, exhibiting a range of lemons and flowers in the front garden of their premises. The plan worked as locals and visitors alike flocked to marvel at the display.
As is the way with good ideas, other local businesses and residents picked up the theme and ran with it, providing similar decor around their own properties. By 1934, the Lemon Festival was officially declared an annual event and attraction.
The festival stepped up a level in 1955 when it was decided that a theme would be assigned to the carnival. In 1955, this was straightforward – a celebration of flowers. Ever since, these themes have grown increasingly elaborate. Some of the particularly interesting and enthusiastic iconographies have included The Signs of the Zodiac (1967), A Trip to the Moon (1973), Wonders of the World (1988), Disneyland in the Land of Lemons (1995) and Menton Creates Cinema (2010).
The Lemon Festival typically attracts 240,000+ visitors. These enthusiasts are primarily from France, though party seekers from around the world are frequently found in attendance. Beware though, it is extremely crowded.
The last festival was dubbed Fantastic Worlds, while the 2022 festival – the 88th – will be a celebration of World Festivals, creating a truly global experience for attendees.
It’s All About the Lemons
The carnival is a celebration of lemons. It is far from simply a parade of well-decorated lemonade stands, though. Around 140 tonnes of citrus fruit are used to create colourful, imaginative sculptures and floats that delight all in attendance. My favourite was an enormous elephant, who’s eyes moved as you walked by, accompanied by a huge ‘trumping’ noise and swinging to and fro from his trunk! I also must mention the large druid sculpture, which whilst incredible, scared me to death! Do not worry, I have nearly finished on my spectacle comments, but as I am writing this, all I can think about is all the lemon desserts I sampled which caused a half a kilo weight gain!
In the spirit of full disclosure, not all the citrus fruit displayed at the Menton Lemon Festival is local. A great deal, especially oranges, are imported from Spain. The festival is celebrating the spirit of the town and its primary export, having long since evolved beyond a sales pitch. Any stock left over upon the conclusion of the celebrations is sold off at a discounted rate which is another reason for countless people to visit and stock up on contents for their springtime fruit bowls. Make sure though, that you buy the ‘citron de Menton’ – it is one of the top-rated lemon varieties in the world, slightly bitter but still sweet and with a reasonably fine rind, perfect for dessert and candy making.
Lemon Desserts, Music, oh’ my!
My favourite dessert (in my colleagues case it was a large mouthful) was an amazing éclair, filled with lemon cream then topped with lightly ‘toasted’ meringue. I have since recreated it several times in our restaurants, but yet to achieve the exact flavour and texture. It is worth the effort, and I cannot begin to tell you how unctuous the filling, pastry and meringue truly were, like floating lemon pillows.
Live music and marching bands add to the party atmosphere, and if you are lucky, you will even catch a sight of the official mascot of the carnival, John Lemon. The fun does not stop when the sun goes down, either. By night, the sculptures are illuminated, and a range of firework and light displays ensure that Menton has plenty of magic in the air.
After a short, enforced hiatus, the 88th annual festival is likely to be among the biggest and best yet – do not miss it!
Where can you put all of these lemons to use? Try our Lemon, Chicken and Orzo soup recipe.