Since ancient times the mountains just inland from the Amalfi Coast had given the locals a much-needed refuge from invaders. But very little land.
So over the centuries they built terraces up the mountainsides and on them planted the only crop that held the possibility of providing them with a livelihood – lemons.
In days gone by, the lemons were valued for their ability to prevent scurvy – the scourge of ancient sailors. Nowadays, in addition to their medicinal properties, they are also valued as the essential ingredient for a uniquely Italian version of lemonade – Limoncello.
We’re not talking about just any old lemon – and definitely none of the “interventions” that characterize so much of 21st century agriculture. This is an ancient lemon, oval in shape, medium size. No chemicals are used on the trees. Any diseased plants are nursed back to health, rather than torn out and replaced. And like the consortiums that govern Italy’s wine production, there is a Consorzio del Limone di Sorrento which keeps a close eye on things. Even grants a coveted IGT label – Indicazione Geografica Tipica – a guarantee that the lemons have been grown in the rich volcanic soil in the area around Sorrento.
Since the tour of the Michelangelo Cheese Factory included a visit to a Limoncello factory, I thought it might be a good idea to visit a citrus garden beforehand to have a close-up look at the star ingredient. There was one such garden in all the brochures on Sorrento. It was called l’Agruminato and was on Corso Italia, right in the centre of the city.
When I saw the long wooden poles I knew I had found it. The poles, usually made of chestnut, support the protective cover for the citrus trees. In the past this cover had been made of straw matting, and although black or green netting has mostly replaced the straw mats, the whole thing is still called pagliarelle (pal-ya-rell-ay), from paglia (pal-ha) – straw. It has a nice ring to it, especially when you don’t pronounce that ‘g’.
The only problem was – I couldn’t find the entrance. Maybe I had misunderstood. Maybe it was a private garden. Maybe it was closed for repairs. In the meantime, that tree with the pink flowers looked a bit like a Redbud. Somebody had really gone at it with the pruning sheers. I repeated to myself one of the Golden Rules of the Good Traveller – the one about not rushing to judgment. To my Canadian gardener’s eyes it still looked like a hack job.
Finally I asked a passerby. Of course, like most things in life, once you’re in the know, it was obvious.
The rinds are placed in a huge stainless steel vat and left to macerate for a few days in a secret family recipe based on pure alcohol and sugar beets (no additives, syrup or sweeteners). At regular intervals the mixture is stirred – very carefully – so the rinds aren’t bruised.
The little cakes had just been brought out of the oven, their sweet fragrance wafting through the entire building. Since they had to cool before they could be transferred to the jars in which they would then be ‘drowned’ in limoncello, it was our guide’s dispiacere to regretfully inform us we would be going straight to the tasting room. No displeasure. Not at all.