Lemon Lifestyle: Visiting Italy’s Amalfi Coast

Rebecca Gooch

A lemon’s a lemon, right? Yellow, a bit nobbly, and not something you want to squirt near your eyes. Wrong. After a week in Positano, in the bosom of Campania lemon country,my wrists are slapped. I now know different.

To think, I once assumed lemons were just the colourful half of the ‘ice ‘n’ slice’ that made for a perfect gin and tonic…

A lemon’s a lemon, right? Yellow, a bit nobbly, and not something you want to squirt near your eyes.

But after a week in Positano, in the bosom of Campania lemon country, and in the company of what must be some of the most passionate citri-culturists on the planet, my wrists are slapped. I now know different.

The Amalfi lemon, or Sfusato Amalfitan – officially recognized as unique by the PGI, or Protected Geographic Indication, in 2001 – is no mere lemon, it’s a delicious, medicinal, landscape-making marvel.

Identified by its prominent “nipple” end, pale yellow colour, high number of oil glands, and virtual lack of seeds and weighing at least 100 grams, it is the first choice for an authentic limoncello (lemon liquer).

It also cures hiccups, dandruff and halitosis. It gets rid of cabbage smells in the kitchen, and makes your shoes shiny if you wipe it over before the polish. Its value is both passionate and prosaic, being both a symbol of fidelity in love, and also a nifty way to stop the shells from cracking if popped in the water when you’re boiling eggs.

I was only ten minutes out of Naples airport, heading to Positano for a few days of lemon cookery instruction when I got my first lemon lesson…

Oh yes, then there’s the dramatic scenery of The Divine Coast, so beautiful it was recognised as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997. That’s partly due to the Amalfi lemon’s scurvy-beating high Vitamin C content.

When the Royal Navy made lemon juice consumption mandatory for its sailors in 1795, Amalfi lemon cultivation hit boom time.

Grabbing their machetes and spades, 17th century farmers hacked out the hillside piazzatta, or lemon terraces we see today, clinging like verdant steps along the once harsh, impenetrable strip of cliffs from Sorrento to Salerno.

Before that, there was nothing but the crash of waves and rocky scrub.

But by the end of the 1800s this stretch of sea-facing land south of Naples had definitively become the world-renowned coast of lemons – and almost by accident, a photographer’s dream and fashionable tourist magnet, attracting visitors and residents as diverse as Danny de Vito, John Steinbeck, Gore Vidal, Bob Geldof, Sophia Loren and Sting, and the birth of luxury hotels like the stylish Le Sirenuse at Positano, where the Rolling Stones, U2, and Ingrid Bergman have lain their heads.

The lemon is at the heart of everything Amalfitan, from decorating the cheerful marker signs along cliff-clinging State Road 163, to influencing cookery, curing gout and inspiring the ceramics industry of picturesque Vietri sul Mare. As a cure-all and basis for Amalfitan cuisine, the lemon should be treated with gentleness and respect, I soon learned.

The women who picked them at the turn of the century, lugging 60kg baskets of sfusato on their shoulders up and down the precipitous steps between the terraces, had to clip their nails and wear cotton gloves to avoid damaging the precious merchandise.

“You should squeeze it like you are squeezing a nice girl,” I was ticked-off by Mamma Agata during a lemon cookery class in her kitchen at Ravello, when I ham-fistedly squished half a limone without the reverence due to such a citrus gem.

The embodiment of a twinkly-eyed, ample Italian mamma, Signora Agata is something of a culinary legend on the Amalfi coast, having cooked for celebrity visitors like Humphrey Bogart (a “sweet, quiet person” who liked fried anchovies – and lots of whisky), Jackie Kennedy (very elegant, liked mozzarella and tomato salad) and Fred Astaire.

Fred’s favourites? He would only eat the decoration around the plate, not the food, Mamma Agata told us, with a sad shake of the head.

“Pff. He was like this!” she exclaimed, holding up her little finger.

When fresh, the Amalfi lemon is one of the less sharp, tastiest lemons in the world, partly due to the mineral rich volcanic soil it grows in, thanks to Vesuvius.

As she rattled through recipe after recipe, chopping, stirring and whisking, she explained that lemon juice should nearly always be added at the last minute. Too much cooking and it would become bitter.

But when fresh, the Amalfi lemon is one of the less sharp, tastiest lemons in the world, partly due to the mineral rich volcanic soil it grows in, thanks to Vesuvius.

And it’s not just fondly biased Amalfitans which believe it: studies at the Universities of Salerno and Reggio Calabria have shown that it contains twice the amount of flavour-giving oxygenated compounds in its rind than other lemons.

The researchers concluded that “it is possible to affirm that the extract from Amalfi Coast lemons has a remarkably superior flavouring power”

Its other supposed prowess, this time as a slimming aid, was demonstrated the next day, when pencil-slim chef Tanina Vanacore took charge in the pretty kitchen of the 17 th century Villa Giovannina in Positano.

“I have drunk lemon juice every day, all my life,” she said, tying a lemon-emblazoned apron around her hand-span waist. “It’s the power of the lemon.” Though it could also be something to do with the fact that her preferred style of new Campania cuisine is lighter, less oily and more reliant on fresh flavour than the oleoso, fatty tendencies of traditional cooking.

As part of her training, the vivacious Tanina, a chef at the legendary Palazzo Murat hotel in Positano, which once belonged to Napoleon’s brother-in-law, wrote a thesis on lemons. She discovered that there were 47 different types in the world.

“But the Amalfi lemon is finest because the flavour and acidity is so balanced, so it is excellent to marinate fish, like this insalata de sepia,” she said, deftly slicing some tiny local squid which had been cooked till tender in boiling water.

Sprinkled with a mix of lemon juice and salt, it was left to “cook” for 30 minutes, and the resulting melt-in-the-mouth texture was unrecognisable from the off-putting rubber-band chewiness so often associated with Mediterranean calamari.

Another popular citrus ingredient on the Amalfi coast is the cedro, which looks like a huge mutant lemon, but is in fact a whole separate species. It has more pith than flesh, but the pith has none of the bitterness of the traditional lemon. Mixed with fennel, orange and a tangy lemon dressing, slices of cedro add to a refreshing, palate-cleansing salad, which Amalfitans eat in place of a sorbet between courses.

To work off those courses, and endeavour to gain a figure like Tanina’s, you could always visit one of the area’s 1556 limoneti, or lemon groves, and trudge the steps linking the vertiginous terraces.

One of the prettiest limoneti has to be the 1½ hectares owned by the Landi family on the Canna Verde hillside at Maiori.

Grandfather Bonaventure Landi, who we found sitting in the sunshine by his chickens, can still manage some of the 380 steps linking the 13 terraces, despite nudging his 93rd birthday. A living example of the benefit of regular lemon consumption he announced, with such veneration you’d think he was declaring the power of prayer. lemon

One of the tastiest ways to take in a healthy dose, is with a glass of limoncello, the traditional lemon liqueur made from infusing lemon rind in alcohol before sweetening with a sugar syrup.

Look for an opaque colour, at least 32 percent alcohol and a thin layer of oil on top, when buying a bottle.

“The Amalfi lemon is the true lemon to use because the skin is pure with no chemicals, and the rind has lots of oil and flavour,” explained Bonaventura’s son, Gino, as he checked some of his 1000 lemon trees.

Each tree produces around 300-600 lemons, or 50 kilos a year, over three harvests, adding to the 16,000 tons of lemons produced annually on the official Amalfi lemon coast, a sea-hugging ribbon of some of the most scenic, tourist villages in Italy: Atrani, Amalfi, Cetara, Conca, Dei Marini, Furore, Maiori, Minori, Positano, Praino, Ravello, Scala, Tramonti and Vietre Sul Mare.

The Limone Costa d’Amalfi even now has its own official cheer-group, the CO.VA.L, to promote it.

Unofficial fans, like Praiano limoncello maker Rosa Esposito, whose family has been working with lemons for generations, sum it up like this: “Il limone succa della vita” – lemons are the juice of life.

And awfully good in a gin and tonic!