Q and A with author Daniella Bernett
Talking Location With author Jo Thomas – Sicily
10th July 2019
TalkingLocationWith… Jo Thomas, author of My Lemon Grove Summer – SICILY
When I’m deciding on my next book, it feels a bit like I’m walking into my pantry and deciding what I’m going to cook for dinner. What sort of a flavour and taste do I want from the meal? How do I want it to make people feel? Warming on cold winter’s night, or bright and bringing sunshine into people’s lives? My Lemon Grove Summer is set in Sicily. I always wanted to go to Sicily. My great grandparents were Sicilian, and it’s always held a fascination and draw to me.
Once I decide on a country I want to write about, I start to look at the food of the area. When I wrote my first book The Oyster Catcher, I was moving to Galway with my husband and children. We went to a restaurant that was like a small end of terrace fisherman’s cottage. Inside, we looked out over Galway bay, the moon shone a strip of silver across the water and I ate a plate of oysters by candlelight there. After that, I began to find out the importance of oysters to area and the community and the shell shuckers, considered ‘the rock and roll stars’ of the seafood world. I knew that’s what I had to write about. Once you find the food of an area, it takes you by the hand and introduces you to the people and the history of a place. For Sicily, I knew it was going to be all about the lemons!
The lemons played such an important role in Sicily’s history. As it started to be known that citrus fruit could prevent scurvy, ships would stop off at Sicily and load up with lemons to give to their crew to keep scurvy at bay. Lemon harvests became a sought after commodity. So sort after that whole harvests could be sold before they were even picked. And then whole groves started to have their lemons stolen. The lemon groves needed protection. Men were employed to protect the lemon groves. These men became the go-betweens, selling, setting the prices and taking their cut and squeezing out people who they didn’t want to do business with. And so began The Mafia. Of course, today things are very different. They may not need protection any more, but their flavour is still amazing; growing in soil feed by the nutrients that come from Mount Etna’s ash, from deep within the island’s core. And this is why blood oranges grow there too, it’s all down to Etna!
So I knew I wanted Sicily, lemons and Etna in the mix. I started to research Sicily and lemons. I contacted a blogger who put me in touch with so many wonderful people who helped me with my research. Her name is Sarah Kearney and her blog is White Almond Sicily. If you’re researching an area, find the bloggers. They know all the right people and places to go! I also saw an advert on line about a town, in Italy, in danger of becoming a ghost town, and offering to pay people to move there; families especially, and I knew I had all the ingredients I needed to make a story. Now all I had to do is add my characters and discover the scents, sights and sounds of the place for myself.
Arriving in Sicily itself, our first view of the island was Etna, reassuring me of the vital role she was going to play in my story. We stayed for one night at an agritourismo just outside of Catania, where we rode horses through the lemon groves, ate wonderful pizzas and pasta and did a day’s cookery course as a family. That was one of my favourite parts of the trip and I try and do it everywhere we go. Getting stuck into the food of the area, cooking it, talking and eating together is such a great way to gather research. You learn about the food of course, which is always at the heart of my stories, where it’s grown and how. You learn about the people, the language and make life long friends! My books are always about the food that is grown, cooked and served around the table for the one’s we love because that where love and life happens for me, around the table. So if you want to get stuck into the heart of a community and research it’s culture and heritage, get cooking and eating with locals. No better way to get to the heart of a sto
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