By Amelia Pane Schaffner
Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn? (Do you know the country where the lemons bloom) ~ Goethe
That land where the lemons bloom is Sorrento, along the Amalfi coast, and across the island of Capri. I recently visited in January. It is where I grew up and spent many endless sunshine-filled summers. In that sunshine, on a highly fertile volcanic soil, and with the gentle breeze from the Mediterranean sea, the lemons that Goethe sings of, not only bloom, they become gorgeous, plump citruses, with an almost gnarly skin, a sweet aroma , and a powerful fragrance. They are in fact so unique that they have been granted protected geographical indication. The lemon groves in Sorrento are beautifully maintained. During the winter the lemon trees are covered with “pagliarelle,” artisanal chestnut wood pergolas that protect the lemons from any drop in temperature. These trees are cradled until spring comes, when the blossoms surround the whole town with a magic aroma.
Limoncello (some may say lemoncello or limoncino) is a liqueur made by infusing lemon zest in alcohol and then mixing it with simple syrup. It is very important to use only the zest and avoid the white pith, which is bitter. They say that the monks made this in their convents along the Amalfi coast centuries ago and that fisherman would take it with them when venturing at sea in the winter: who blames them? The monks, who were great “potion” creators, would infuse liqueur with many different ingredients: rose petals (which makes rosolio), herbs (rosemary, mint, fennel fronds), even coffee, and various other citruses (tangerine, orange)…but the lemons became quickly the most popular addition.
One Christmas, just a few years ago, I made a variation that our friends loved: in addition to the lemon zest, I added the zest of blood oranges, a cinnamon stick and some pomegranate seeds: it made a wonderful rose colored rosolio, quickly christened by a happy group of partiers we were entertaining in our patio around the fire pit: fuoco dolce (sweet fire)!
The procedure to make Limocello is very simple but the key is the quality of the lemons: Limoncello with Sorrento lemons is actually a registered trademark. If you can’t access them, don’t panic: you can use the best organic, pesticide-free, kind you can find. Italians typically keep a small bottle of Limoncello at all times in their freezer to serve after dinner (don’t worry, it will not freeze because of the high alcohol content), especially during the summer. Personally, I like it at room temperature: I think you can taste its rounded flavor a lot better that way. Be careful though…it is quite strong, especially in the version made with grain alcohol. My father calls it David and Goliath, adding these words: “a little one stones you!”
A common misconception is that you have to wait for months to infuse your lemon peel… I have found, by trial and error, that a couple of weeks is all it takes: I did not notice improved flavor for steeping beyond that point. One trick to making your Limoncello a bit clearer and more transparent is to strain it through coffee filters once it has finished steeping with the sugar syrup. Since it is quite tedious to peel the lemons I recommend you invite a friend over while doing this, and possibly sip a bit of the previous batch in the process!