Seven generations of the Tosan family have been farming lemons on the slopes where the mountains of the Alpes-Maritimes plunge dramatically into the Mediterranean in the bay of Menton. At least, it’s seven as far as current proprietors Sylviane and Jean-Claude know. It couldn’t be traced any further. That means they were farming lemons when they were more medicinal than gourmet. The Tosans used to supply the fruit to the boats to cure the sailors of scurvy when they arrived at the old port just a few kilometres below their terroir.
Jean-Claude, the 72 year old patron of this particular lemon farm, started racing a bike when he was a teenager. Like many, he started cycling as a necessity - to get to school - and it turned into a lifetime obsession. He’s competed in all the local races, including Les Courses Disparues such as the Boucle de Sospel. But when asked what is his dream parcours, his wife answers ‘l’autoroute’. Because he loved speed. The current pace of movement is much slower on the farm that sits just below the more-than-moderate gradients of the Route de l’Armeé les Alpes - aka the Col de la Madone.
It’s a terraced terrain covered with trees dappled with yellow bursts of zest that contrast against the almost-evergreens, but which peak in and around February each year. Just in time for the Fête du Citron in Menton which draws unexpected bus-loads of incoming tourist revenue. After introductions, lemons are cut and eaten as they are, rind included.
Two terraced levels below the main house is the house where Jean-Claude’s parents lived. It remains as they left it, totally untouched. To keep this second maison on the land costs a bit in taxes, but when he needs some energy Jean-Claude goes and sits in the living room and, so Sylviane says, he comes back a new man. The taxes are more than worth it. In the toolshed attached to that house is his last competition bike – a 90’s Colnago, complete with ITM negative-degree stem and Campagnolo Athena groupset. He bought it in Monaco where they lived before the death of his parents and inevitable move to the family farm.
Below that tool shed is the Garden of Eden… no … Menton. We came to learn about lemons. We found oranges, clementines, grapefruit, bananas, thyme, olives, kumquats... The list goes on and Sylviane will expand on each item with passion, if you have the time. All this is possible due to the micro-climate of the bay of Menton. The Alps create a screen behind that keeps out the cold mountain air, which usually gets trapped in the valley at Sospel. South facing, the farm benefits from la douceur de temps.
But it hasn’t always been that way. Citrons depend on natural elements : le terroir – the dry rocky soil - and la méteo but of course there is also human influence. In the 1960s there was a virus that almost dried up the entire lemon tree network in the area. The Tosan family had about 200 trees. They reckon maybe six survived. Snippets were taken and replanted from remaining trees that apparently resembled the mother Theresa.
The lemon soil, with the help of a little soul, helped bring it all back. And the sun that shone and the warm Mediterranean breeze that blew, nurtured the fruit. The lemon represents concentrated soleil. At least it does to us. It’s alluring and undeniable, much like like Jean-Claude and Sylviane. They burst with life, sharing those archives of knowledge and experience that haven’t been written in books but rather have been lived on these terraces.
Jean-Claude is like any cyclist when questioned about his life on the bike. ‘J’ai monté à 30kmh’! But the Madone isn’t even his favorite climb, he prefers the neighbouring Col de Castillon which joins Menton to Sospel. If you come to visit that climb, try that speed on your carbon 22-speed feather-weight. It’s hard if not impossible for more than one minute.
Life on the lemon farm can be hard too. The Tosans didn’t make a proper harvest last year. They continue to do produce within the stringent French ‘bio’ regultations, with the soil and the trees being controlled annually by the authorities. To do it any other way requires an intensity and a method which does not match the family history, nor the family spirit. It’s not sustainable anymore so production is only what comes naturally and the results are sold at the market in Menton.
Jean-Claude and Sylviane do it as respect for their parents and grand-parents and as a lesson to those generations below them. They know in the modern world this way of life is over-powered by other forces. They adapt and continue, just like Jean-Claude puts his bike in the small van and descends to the coast to continue riding. The lemon farmers of Menton will keep producing the best lemons in the for as long as their traditional artisanal métier permits.
“People buy land to make money and then sell, we keep it for heritage and to keep our roots. If we lose our roots we have lost everything.”