Zest for life: an interview with Philip Culazzo

Monaco is famous for its glamour, fashion and style. But it’s also home to 600 orange trees. We interviewed Philip Culazzo, inventor of the hugely successful liqueur L’Orangerie, and also spoke to him about an exciting new product:

CO: You’re Irish, but you have roots in this part of the world, don’t you?

PC: I do. My father is from the Italian Riviera just along the coast here, and I was very lucky to grow up in a dual-nationality household. In fact as a child I spent all my summers on the Côte d’Azur. My father used to tell me not to touch the orange trees in Bordighera because they were poisonous. All those years later I was reminded of that when I started to put together this business. It’s kind of ironic!

CO: And the region is still well known for its citrus industry.

PC: In places like Menton, sure. But the whole region was once well known for its citrus fruits.  Ships travelling round the Mediterranean or further afield had to have vitamin C on board against scurvy. People would drop off grain and other produce and then load up with lemons. Lemons have always been far more useful than orange trees, so in Menton they actually grafted lemons on to bitter orange trees.

CO: And what about Monaco?

PC: Well, there are 600 trees growing in the boulevards and gardens of Monaco, all along the Boulevard de Suisse, de Grand Bretagne, de Belgique, d’Italie, they all have orange trees. The rue Caroline and rue Grimaldi, and the parks around Fontvieille have them as well. They’re bitter oranges with a pH of 2.4 – no good for eating. But years ago, families would have made vin d’orange, which is where you take cheap wine, then add alcohol sugar and spices and zest.

CO: And that’s what you do?

PC: Not quite. We use the peel and juice in a different way, and aim to make a much higher quality product. We have two teams of four doing eight-hour shifts during the harvest. That’s sixteen hours a day of picking the fruit, for a month to a month and a half.  10,000 to 15,000 kilos of fruit – 10 to 15 tonnes – all picked by hand, and brought here to the atelier. We use the zest to make the liqueur, and then we ferment and distil the juice to make an eau de vie. The eau-de-vie needs a three-year aging process, so it’s not on the market just yet.

CO: Tell us about your mysterious new product…

PC:  Well, I looked around and saw many other citrus fruits apart from bitter orange. Monaco and the surrounding area has lemons, sweet oranges, grapefruit, cédrat – an ancient lemon with a small fruit and a very large pith – and bergamot. The last two are used a lot in the perfume industry – the scents are absolutely intoxicating. And it seemed that it might be an idea to produce a gin. Of course new gins are ten a penny these days, but my London friends who started a gin club said they would give me honest feedback, and they genuinely thought it was a good product.

CO: I notice the label on the gin bottle has a view of the Rocher and the Prince’s Palace – why’s that?

PC: Ask anyone – from Botswana to Bangkok – about Monaco, and they all have a particular mental image: the Grand Prix, the Yacht Show, Princess Grace. It’s a really well known location. But it’s never really had any tangible specialities that people can take home with them. That’s what I’m hoping to change.

CO: And I believe the orange liqueur already has quite an international following?

PC: Sure. We’ve been doing very well in China, where we received a double gold medal at the China Wine and Spirits Awards, the most prestigious award in Asia. Later, Prince Albert presented a bottle of L’Orangerie as an official gift to Chinese president Xi Jinping when he paid a state visit to Monaco. We also sell in the south of France and Paris, the UK, Japan, Singapore, and we’re looking at Germany. And we’ve even had visitors from Iceland! Our main customers are hotels, restaurants, bars, beach clubs, independent wine shops, yacht provisioning, as well as private individuals of course.

CO: You mentioned the Prince: I expect that he is quite proud to be able to make a gift of something so strongly Monégasque.

PC: Yes, he has been extremely supportive. After all, he hates to see anything wasteful. He’s very much in favour of sustainability and especially businesses that are friendly to the environment. He came to the opening of the distillery, and now we are speaking with the palace chef about maybe creating desserts based on L’Orangerie.

CO: Lastly, what is it about Monaco that makes it special for you?

PC: I feel so lucky to live in this part of the world. It all comes down to it being the land of citrus. As you know, Monaco is two square kilometres, smaller than Central Park. But as soon as you leave that, you come to the countryside. Places like Limone, in Italy – an hour’s drive away and great for skiing.  Everyone knows Monaco, Cannes, Saint-Tropez, Antibes, but there are some wonderful little islands off the coast like the Poquerolles, which are just so peaceful; and beautiful hilltop villages, that are very quiet even in the height of summer. Even where my father comes from, Bordighera, is not so well-known, but it’s a wonderful place to visit.

CO: Do you feel that people are more, or less adventurous these days?

PC: For drinks as well as visits, people go back to what they know. Every big city has the same stuff from fashions to fridge magnets, but people also want something private and individual, especially now. That’s what they want: to seek out the specialities, stories, and things that are truly authentic.