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Lemons Galore and Limoncello on Italy’s Amalfi Coast

Many of my articles are about footpaths, journeys, and outdoor adventures around the globe.

lemons-and-limoncello--on-amalfi-coast-italy

World Famous Fruit from the Mediterranean

When I thought of Italy, I thought of pasta, olives, wine and tomatoes -- and occasionally something other than food. But then we arrived in Naples and met our driver to take us to our B&B on the Amalfi Coast, what did we see? Lemons.

No, not just a few trees here and there but entire mountainsides covered in them, with fruit so big and so yellow that we could see them from a great distance, peeking out among thick green leaves. Our driver told us that lemons are the #1 crop in the area.

And that fact became even more obvious as we explored the small seaside town of Amalfi and the slopes and other small villages along the peninsula in southwestern Italy. Everywhere we walked, shopped and ate, we were surrounded by the yellow citrus.

Here, I'll show you some of my many lemony photos from Amalfi, tell you a little about how they're grown on those coastal mountainsides and some of the products you'll find made from this popular fruit.

All photos on this page were taken by me, Deb Kingsbury

Terraced, Trellised Groves

Growing where the mountains meet the sea.

Lemon tree terraces above Amalfi.

Lemon tree terraces above Amalfi.

I can only imagine the amount of work it took to terrace these steep slopes and build all those trellises. As my husband and I walked the countless steps and paths that lead from the shore into the coastal mountains, we marveled at the scope and beauty of the lemon groves that surrounded us, not to mention the visible health of the fruit.

Lemon tree terraces above Amalfi.

Lemon tree terraces above Amalfi.

Aside from the perfect growing conditions -- volcanic soil, the subtropical climate, and plenty of rainfall -- another reason the lemons look so good is due to the netting (you can see it in the photo), which was rolled up at the time. In the photo below, you see where it's stretched over some of the groves. We were told that this netting, which also is used in green, is to hold in the heat and protect the fruit from frost, as well as to keep birds out.

The lemons are harvested three times throughout the year.

The Anatomy of an Italian Lemon Trellis

lemons-and-limoncello--on-amalfi-coast-italy

At first I thought the lemon trees grew up and along the trellises, just as the gourds I used to grow. But, as I understand it, the trellises we saw on the Amalfi Coast are built over the trees at a height of between 8 and 10 feet. The trees aren't allowed to grow beyond the trellising, so the new wood is pruned at that level, while the smaller suckers are tied to it each year, "molding" the tree into an umbrella shape. This creates a partial shade and protects the lemons, which hang down through the trellis and are picked from below.

I'm told the trellises are made of chestnut tree poles.

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lemons-and-limoncello--on-amalfi-coast-italy

Not Your Average Lemons!

Officially known as Sfusato Amalfitano, these lemons are not what we usually see in markets here in the U.S. or what we taste. Amalfi's lemons are HUGE with thick, lumpy skin. They're also more elongated. And they're on the sweeter side, so you can eat them as you would an orange.

They're unusually large size is probably the reason many markets have had to put out signs, asking people not to touch -- "non toccare" -- the lemons. I have to admit, I was tempted to pick one up myself, to see how heavy it was and hold it for a photo. Such a tourist, I am!

You'll know for sure if you're buying a lemon from this region if you see the official I.G.P. logo. I.G.P. is the organization responsible for protecting the Sfusato Amalfitano, with its full title being the Consortium for the protection of Limone Costa d'Amalfi I.G.P.

Born and Raised in the Lemon Groves

A man with lemon juice in his veins.

Read the story of the Aceto family's centuries-old lemon business in the NY Times, and watch this short, engaging video, where 78-year-old Luigi Aceto talks about being born and raised in the groves and the struggle to keep the family legacy alive.

Most of the lemon groves are gated. I wanted so much to walk through them.

Most of the lemon groves are gated. I wanted so much to walk through them.

Learn More About this Unique Region of Italy

Strong but Tasty and Refreshing

Limoncello and lemons for sale in Amalfi

Limoncello and lemons for sale in Amalfi

When I first saw these bottles of lemon liquid, I thought it was some kind of tangy sauce. Then we noticed people at the restaurant we were eating at had shot glasses full of something bright yellow, and I asked our waitress what it was. She promptly brought us our own chilled shots of limoncello to try. Potent!

The drink was a bit stronger than I expected, but, then again, I'm not much of a drinker and naively didn't realize there was grain or ethyl alcohol in it. 32% to 50% alcohol content! Definitely perked me right up!

While Italians often serve this as a drink, limoncello is also used as an ingredient in desserts and cooking. Susan from the "Kitchen Window" on NPR gives a nice overview of this sweet and tangy Italian liqueur, followed by her own recipe for making it and a variety of uses for it other than drinking it straight. These include limoncello custards, cake with limoncello frosting, and an Italian dessert called blueberry limoncello zabaglione. See Have Your Limoncello and Eat It, Too.

lemons-and-limoncello--on-amalfi-coast-italy

Bottoms Up!

Made from the zest of the lemon, which is basically soaked in the alcohol to release its oils then mixed with simple syrup of sugar and water (although there's more to this century-old process than that), limoncello is often served as an after-dinner "digestive." One thing's for sure, I was no longer tasting the gnocchi I'd just eaten when I downed my complementary yellow concoction.

Some people use vodka to make their own limoncello, which has a lower alcohol content than the grain alcohol used in the traditional recipe. Some call this "cheater's limoncello," and you can follow the recipe on the Mezzomedical blog of all places. Don't be in a hurry, though; the mixture will have to sit for a month and a half before it's ready for tasting.

In the photo here are two small bottles of limoncello that were given to us as favors at a friend's wedding we attended in Amalfi.

Making It Yourself

Refreshing Lemon Gelato and Sorbet

One of MANY gelato shops in Amalfi.

One of MANY gelato shops in Amalfi.

We paid a visit to this gelateria many times -- okay, at least once daily -- while we were in Amalfi, and many of those times I chose either lemon gelato or lemon sorbet as my yummy deliciousness of choice. All that yellow, citrusy fruit gave me a non-stop craving.

Other Products: Variations on the Golden Theme

Besides eating them whole, drinking them, or spooning and licking them into your mouth in the form of gelato or sorbet, Amalfi lemons are used in a number of other products for cooking, cleaning, and beauty.

You'll find this favorite fruit as an ingredient in honey, nougat and other candies, cookies and cakes, cheese, as part of an onion brine, and in a frozen treat called granita. Lemon is also used in the making of soaps, perfumes and face creams.

And you'll see it all over on souvenirs and ceramics, postcards, t-shirts and more. The lemon is as much a part of the landscape and diet as it is the culture of the Amalfi coast.

Read the Story of the Amalfi Coast Lemon

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