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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 April 2006, 22:45 GMT 23:45 UK
Bergamot growers get whiff of success
By Ben Richardson
BBC News, business reporter in Reggio di Calabria

Antonio Familiari, bergamot grower in Calabria
Mr Familiari grows oranges and tropical fruits as well as bergamot
For Calabria's bergamot growers, the citrus fruit that gives Earl Grey tea its distinctive flavour also may provide a financial lifeline.

After watching prices fall as chemical firms offered cheaper, synthesised versions of the essential oil that is extracted from bergamot skins, growers have banded together in co-operatives.

At the forefront of their efforts is Antonio Familiari, an 80-year-old former school teacher who now tends the bergamot groves that run from his house to the deep seas off Calabria's coast.

"The bergamot is an intelligent creature," he explains from under the branches of a low-hanging tree. "Its arrival in Calabria is shrouded in mystery, and even though it grows elsewhere, only in this area does it give us the essential oil."

With that, he holds up a yellow bergamot fruit and runs his thumbnail across its skin, releasing a stream of liquid that smells lemon sharp with soft notes of orange.

"This is nature's gift to Calabria," he says. "Wouldn't it be something if we could use this to help rejuvenate the local economy?"

Shrinking market

For many years, the main buyers of bergamot oil were perfume makers that used it as a base scent for their products.

Today, the UK's Body Shop is one of biggest customers at Mr Familiari's organic co-operative, buying the oil that is recommended for aromatherapy treatments and has antiseptic and anti-bacterial properties.

Bergamot in baskets
When I think about the possibilities for bergamot fruit, I get goose bumps
Ezio Pizzi, bergamot grower

During the boom years in the mid-1960s, a grower could expect to earn - in today's money - about 50,000 euros (35,000) per hectare of bergamot. An average grower would have between one and 1.5 hectares.

However, as well as healing properties, the oil does have one side-effect that has hampered its sales in recent years - if put on human skin and then exposed to sunlight it causes discolouring and burning.

Faced with this consumer time bomb, companies turned to manufactured versions of the oil and prices have dropped. Last year a kilo of bergamot essential oil sold for 62 euros; today it goes for 45 euros.

Despite admitting that the oil can cause problems, the growers claim that the dangers have been over exaggerated.

'Life's work'

To set the record straight they have been funding research into uses for bergamot fruit, and hope to prove that its juice can be used to lower cholesterol and literally spring-clean a drinker's veins from the inside out.

Francesco Crispo, director of the Consortium of Bergamot Growers
Mr Crispo, left, has been promoting bergamot oil for decades

"If we can prove this, then it would put us on the map," Mr Familiari says.

A 40 minute drive away on the outskirts of Reggio di Calabria, Francesco Crispo, the director of the state-created Consortium of Bergamot Growers, is thinking along similar lines.

From his office by the main oil extracting plant, Mr Cripso lays out the plans for a 1,500-square metre, seven million-euro institute of perfumery.

As well as a laboratory and production facilities, there would be student quarters, a distillery and a museum tracing the history of bergamot growing.

"Italy, and especially Calabria, is going through a difficult time," he explains. "Getting this built would be the realisation of my life's work. And in a region like this it could make all the difference."

Ugly sister

The problems facing Italy's south have been well documented.

Part of the bergamot consortium
A lack of money has hampered many development plans

Unemployment is still higher than in the northern regions, and people laugh that the real jobless rate is nowhere near as low as the official figure of just under 15%.

Reports estimate that as many as half of the under-35s looking for work cannot find it and many young people have had to move north to find work, something that their parents lament whenever you ask them about their biggest worries.

Small producers, so long the life-blood of Italy's economy, are facing increased competition from Asian rivals, while large manufacturers no longer have the domestic market or the cheap workforce they depended upon.

Infrastructure projects have been neglected so that roads are crumbling and rail links are slow, and unregulated construction has left a legacy of substandard and unfinished buildings that give suburbs a bombed-out feel.

And then there are the problems with the mafia and 'Ndrangheta, the local criminal gang that runs everything from restaurants to drugs and people smuggling.

Step by step

The government and many observers are pinning their hopes on boosting tourism to regions like Calabria, and pumping billions of euros into huge construction projects like the bridge linking mainland Italy and Sicily.

Mr Crispo fills bottles with bergamot oil
Bergamot has been part of the region's traditions for centuries

Calabrians on the whole welcome the plans, saying that anything to help the region would be welcome.

But many of the promises ring hollow and there is little belief that Rome's much-trumpeted development will ever arrive.

For their part, the bergamot growers are tired of waiting, and while closing the gap between Italy's north and south will probably be the nation's main battle in years to come, its success will depend on hundreds of smaller victories.

The importance of this is not lost on Ezio Pizzi, a 62-year-old former lawyer who returned to his family's bergamot plot after his father died a decade ago.

"When I think about the possibilities for bergamot fruit, I get goosebumps," he says, grasping a nearby friend on the shoulders and giving him a good shake.

"OK, so, we are coming from pretty much nothing. But if we get it right we might just change people's lives."

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