The Lemons of Menton

Valero Doval

A French lemon takes its place as the most delicious of its kind in the world.

Jean-Claude Tosan doesn’t look like a serpent, but he might as well be one as he plucks a ripe lemon from one of his trees, peels it and hands me…the skin.

Faites confiance,” he says. “This is the only place in the world where it tastes delicious.”

Tosan, whose family has cultivated lemons for seven generations on the terraced hillsides above Menton, is right. The skin of his lemon is sweet enough to eat.

Perhaps, then, the hoary local legend is true. Adam and Eve, the story goes, discovered this elegant stretch of seafront between Monaco and the Italian border not long after their expulsion from Eden—and Eve planted a golden fruit she had taken from paradise because Menton reminded her of home.

It wasn’t until 1929, however, that Menton realized its lemons were truly special, plumper and often irregularly shaped, the result of growing on trees in soil nourished by one of the most spectacular microclimates on earth. So the storied annual Fête du Citron (February 16 to March 6, 2013; fete-du-citron.com) was born a year later—and with it the recipe for what is possibly the world’s best tarte au meringue, or lemon meringue pie, went public.

Sylviane Tosan, Jean-Claude’s wife of 42 years, was not born in Menton but has become skilled at making the pie. After a tour of the Tosan family orchards, where Jean-Claude grew up and where he took over after his parents’ deaths in the 1990s, she sits at a big wooden table and painstakingly writes out the recipe for the lemon meringue pie passed around by Menton families for almost 100 years. “It’s not easy to make,” she warns. “Our lemons are not treated with any chemicals. They’re pure, and you can taste the difference in the pie.”

It takes 30 minutes to prep—that’s if one is already something of a pastry chef—and 40 minutes to bake. Following the detailed directions for the crust, lemon curd and meringue is like making three separate desserts. The result is a deeply lemony, more flan-like meringue pie than I remember my mother baking in Massachusetts.

Someday soon this lemon—along with this way of life—may disappear. Tosan says that in his maternal grandfather’s day, when he used to walk the four miles down to the seafront to sell his fruit, there were about 200 lemon farmers. That was about 60 years ago, when many Mentonnais lemon farmers began selling their land to the English, who first came here for the sun. Now the majority of lemons that decorate the floats in the Fête du Citron come from Morocco, since fewer than 15 farmers remain. But they’re the descendants of flinty stock. Until 1848, Menton was a part of Monaco, and the palace kept the principality solvent by mercilessly taxing the Menton farmers. They rebelled, won independence and later joined France, after a brief stint under the King of Sardinia. Monaco was forced to turn to a casino culture to make up for the lost revenues.

Mauro Colagreco, the Argentine-born chef at the Michelin two-star Mirazur in Menton (30 Av. Aristide Briande; 33-4/92-41-86-86; mirazur.fr), is such a fan of the local lemons that he grows them in his restaurant’s garden. “There is a huge difference between Menton lemons and lemons from anywhere else,” he says. “They’re so sweet, you can eat them by themselves, and they’re much less acidic.”

The Tosans helped create an organization to promote Menton lemons and hope at least one of their three kids will carry on the tradition of harvesting the golden fruit. “No matter what,” says Sylviane as she squeezes a lemon into the pitcher of water on the table, “we’ll make sure there will always be enough Menton lemons to make the lemon meringue pie.”