Used in many cultures and for many dishes, the juice of lemons seems to be a universal condiment. It is used to flavor fish and seafood along the beautiful coasts of Italy and to make refreshing sorbet / granita, Babà, and other classic Italian desserts. In medieval times, the sorbet was made from snow collected high up in the mountains and stored in deep caverns until the summer when it was brought to the tables of wealthy Amalfi merchants to impress guests and fellow merchants. Today, even the leaves of lemon trees are used to prepare dishes like frittelle di Ceceniello.
Italian lemons have always had a mystique, probably dating from the Roman era. They were even depicted in the frescoes of Pompeii. Limoncello, however, has a more contested history. One story tells of fishermen and farmers who, during the Middle Ages, drank a shot of limoncello in the early mornings to warm up…or in the evenings to fight off colds after returning to shore. Another says that the recipe originated in a convent to fortify monks between prayers.
Recent history recounts that limoncello was born at the beginning of the twentieth century in a small inn on the island of Capri. Maria Antonia Farace, who had a large garden of lemons and oranges, is credited with the creation of limoncello. After World War II, her grandson opened a restaurant nearby whose specialty was the lemon liqueur made by his nonna. In 1988, the grandson’s son started an artisanal production of limoncello and registered its trademark.
The true birthplace of Italy’s most famous liqueur could be Capri, Sorrento, or Amalfi. Regardless of the origin, what makes limoncello special is the type of lemon used. Traditionally, it is made from the zest of Femminello St. Teresa lemons, also known as sfusato amalfitano, which are cultivated along the Amalfi Coast between the towns of Vico Equense and Massa Lubrense. The lemons are unique: long, tapered, and double the size of other lemons. They have thick, wrinkled skin, an intense perfume, and a sweet, juicy flesh. In fact, they can be eaten like an apple. The secret comes from the Amalfi territory, which is protected from the cold northern winds but exposed to the sea breezes and strong sun on the Mediterranean.
Amalfi lemons are harvested by hand between the spring and summer. Pesticides are never used in their cultivation as the heart of limoncello production is the lemon peel infusion with alcohol. This process can take 3 days to weeks depending on family formulas and desired taste. The resulting yellow liquid is then mixed with a simple syrup. Limoncello tends to be opaque, the result of the emulsification of the sugar syrup and the extracted lemon oils. It is known as the “ouzo effect.”
Although sometimes served as an aperitivo, limoncello is traditionally served chilled as an after-dinner digestivo. Along the Amalfi Coast, it is served in small ceramic glasses that are also chilled.
Many thanks to our friend, Sue Mellor, who is a docent at the Santa Barbara Courthouse with my husband, Bill. She introduced me to a video on YouTube, “How Limoncello Is Made Using Huge Amalfi Coast Lemons.” Sue’s relatives came from Sicily where limoncello is also made.