Wintertime is citrus time, and my little trees have valiantly continued to produce from behind glass. I've gone through the Meyer lemons, the elfin clementines have also come and gone, but the limes and lemons continue to ripen. I've nursed myself and others through sore throats, and done many other things, banking on the acidity and generosity of these little trees. I love citrus of (nearly) all sorts. And after writing and thinking about tangy yogurt in the last post, stumbling upon a crateful of bergamot at the local organic co-op was both wonderful and opportune. You simply can't find bergamot oranges every day, unless you happen to live in the Calabria region of Italy.
There is a pretty good chance you're familiar with bergamot, even if you think you aren't: its distinctively piney fragrant rind is what oil of bergamot is made from, and oil of bergamot is what perfumes Earl Grey tea. (It is also in Lady Grey tea, which has more of a clearly citrus fragrance, as the bergamot is softened by the additions of lemon and orange peel).
Bergamot is a small, bitter orange, citrus aurantium subsp. bergamia, mainly cultivated in Calabria, although bergamot of somewhat lesser quality is produced in Turkey, where you can also find bergamot preserves, and there are ongoing attempts (with varying degrees of success) to produce this fruit in Argentina, Brazil, Ivory Coast, the US and Morocco. Beyond Earl Grey, bergamot is used in perfumes; according to Wikipedia and other sources, about one third of all men's colognes and half of women's perfumes contain its essential oil, although many also resort to chemical copies of bergamot. In aromatherapy, it is traditionally used to counter depression and stress, but it also has antiseptic qualities. User beware: its proven effectiveness as a clarifying skin toner is only in minute amounts, blended with other oils. Any more and you risk a photosensitive reaction if you go in the sun.
Of course, the only self-medication I planned to indulge in with my half-dozen bergamot oranges was the edible kind. I made a homey glazed yogurt cake, or gâteau au yaourt--the go-to recipe for French home cooks everywhere--dosed with a big spoonful of grated zest and lashings of bergamot juice, which is as pucker-worthy as lemon juice but definitely more bitter than grapefruit. This complex bitterness is why bergamot, beyond tea, is also an excellent addition to cocktails, sodas and other mixed drinks. As there were still more bergamot oranges in my fruit basket, and I had no raging desire for a high-toned bourbon sour B-Line, I went trawling online and found my answer at Vancouver, Washington (USA) based Hungry Cravings blog.
Blogger Lucy came up with her own bergamot riff on scrumptious Russian tea cakes (sometimes known as Mexican wedding cookies), and I immediately pounced upon her recipe. In the photo above, they are cooling after having been baked, but aren't yet rolled in powdered sugar.
These rich little cakelets actually melt in your mouth, leaving a sweet lemony aftertaste, which brings to mind what is perhaps the most old-fashioned French culinary use of bergamot: the boiled, hand-cut bergamot-flavored hard candies of Nancy, a town in the Lorraine. (Photo below courtesy of the Lorraine tourism bureau.)As for Lucy's confections, having made them (and kids could make them, they are that easy), the only alteration I might recommend would be to increase the amount of bergamot zest from 1 to 2 tablespoons. Another tip: make these when you are certain company is coming, or you plan to call on others (bearing gifts), because there is a reasonable chance you + thirty to forty of these decadent beauties = a little too much over-the-kitchen-sink consumption...I think I'll make some non-alcoholic sparkling fruit spritzers with the remaining bergamot to detox from all the butter.