Citrus fruits take over the streets of Menton, France, a small town on the French Rivera every mid-February until early March. Menton’s annual Fête du Citron is a spellbinding celebration of the town’s lemon heritage.
Lemon Growing in Menton
Lemon growing has always been a key part of life in Menton, located just half an hour’s drive from Nice. There are vast groves growing the special, and extremely desirable, Menton lemons.
This variety is now a protected species which can only be grown in this geographical area where the climate has resulted in a mild tasting lemon, possessing an intense aroma and with an intense yellow coloured fine rind when fully ripe. The lemons become almost fluorescent.
Highly prized by gourmets, the lemons are picked by hand, untouched by chemicals and not covered in wax. The 12 citrus fruit growers within the area produce over 60 tonnes a year. Oranges are also grown throughout the area, and the two fruits are known collectively as the Fruit d’or (golden fruits).
The History of Fête du Citron
In 1934, a local hotelier came up with the idea of creating an exhibition of flowers and Menton lemons within the grounds of the Hotel Riviera. It proved immensely popular and the following year the exhibition moved out into the streets as the Fête du Citron. Since then, the festival has grown substantially and become a major tourist attraction.
It now occupies most of the town and has become the second largest event on the French Rivera, exceeded only by the Nice Carnival. The Monaco Grand Prix is the third most popular event in the area. During the fifteen day Fête du Citron festival, over 200,000 visitors flock to Menton, filling all available accommodation for miles around, drawn by the spectacular floats, garden designs and gourmet food on offer.
Highlights of the Festival are the daily parade of floats both during the day and at night, a garden exhibition, children’s carnival, Menton Autrefois nighttime spectacular.
Some events are free whereas some tickets must be purchased. The streets do get very crowded with people keen to see these elaborate constructions.
Fête du Citron Festival Highlights
Each year, the festival adopts a different theme. 2023 marks the 89th Fete du Citron in 2023 with a theme of Rock and Opera. Previous festivals have included Fantastic Worlds, Around the World in 80 days, Broadway and Musical Comedies.
During the daily parades, there are usually about 10 elaborately decorated floats passing through the streets accompanied by musicians and dancers, ending at the waterfront Promenade.
In addition, 13 decorated displays are created along the length of the narrow Biovès gardens. These displays are incredibly spectacular. In 2018 when Bollywood was the festival theme, the Biovès gardens were covered in stunning Hindu temples and statues covered in citrus fruits.
On other occasions there have been giant animals, dragons, a massive windmill, a phoenix with eggs, fish and even a Mary Poppins complete with umbrella and carpet bag dancing on the roof of a house.
All the giant sculptures in the Biovès gardens as well as those on the floats are made from wire and covered in oranges, lemons and limes. In total over 140 tonnes of fruit are used for the garden and float displays.
12 people are employed to check the fruit every day and replace any that have deteriorated. This involves another 5 tonnes of fruit throughout the event. The most dramatic designs can account for up to 18 tonnes of fruit. All the fruit is held in place by elastic bands of which 750,000 are required!
Additional activities take place in the Jardin Remarquable in La Citronneraie where visitors can explore an ancient olive grove as well as citrus groves, and countless other species such as avocado, mimosa, mango, ginger, banana, eucalyptus and yucca. There is a large festival of orchids also taking place. Local farmers host walks through lemon groves, there are garden tours as well as tastings of all kinds of lemon produce.
Lemon Delicacies to Try
Not surprisingly, lemon features heavily in the regional food specialties. Worth seeking out is the French classic Tarte au Citron which is widely available, and Éclair citron, a choux pastry filled with lemon custard and topped with meringue.
Patisserie F Leroy at La Cigale Fabrice on Avenue Carnot creates a fantastic Citronnier, a lemon mousse filled with lemon caramel.
Head for Maison Herbin on the Rue du Vieux College for lemon jam and guided tours of the workshops. Lemon wine containing macerated lemons and spices is perfect for an aperitif. The similar orange wine also available at the Au Pays Du Citron store in Rue Saint-Michel. The store also sells a delicious limoncello liqueur that can be served as a kir or as an aperitif but should only be served ice-cold.
Lemon bonbons are fun for a sweet treat, as they are hard on the outside, but soft and chewy inside.