Italy’s Amalfi Coast, a string of ancient towns perched on a peninsula above the Tyrrhenian Sea, is famous for its intensely perfumed, sfusato lemons. Lemon trees on terraces stairstep up the steep mountainsides, sharing space with olives, grapes, oranges, figs, and vegetables. Wooden arbors support the heavily laden trees, draped with netting to prevent fruit damage. Walking under the trellised groves, inhaling the mixed scents of sea air and fragrant fruit, must rank as one of the world’s great olfactory treats. The steep terrain means that the fruit is hand-picked and carried downhill to market; the occasional sure-footed mule is still seen hauling heavy loads up and down the terrace steps.
Commercial lemon cultivation here is ancient, dating to at least the 11th century, when the Republic of Amalfi, allied with Arab traders, dominated regional seafaring. The sfusato’s exceptionally high vitamin C content helped the ships’ crews prevent scurvy, the bane of long sea voyages. The sfusato variety at maturity is also quite large, with a deeply pitted, bumpy skin rich in essential oils. Though the Amalfi Republic fell more than 1,000 years ago, the lemon culture survives–today, most of the crop goes into limoncello liqueur, jams, and locally produced & consumed lemon pastries.
Villa Maria, an agriturismo balanced in the hills above the town of Minori, within view of Ravello’s famous Villa Cimbrone, produces lemon and olive products from terraced trees right on the property. The family-owned farm & guesthouse boasts more than several hundred lemon trees; the trees shade the rooms’ terraces, overlooking the terra-cotta rooftops of Minori in the valley below. Lemon-centric dishes emerging from the kitchen in mid-February included a stellar breakfast cake filled with lemon curd, lemon-glazed grilled swordfish and squid, fresh, locally-caught octopus marinated with olive oil and lemon, an absolutely stupendous lemon jam and and, of course, magnificent, handmade, small-batch limoncello. Cloudy with lemon essence, gently alcoholic, only faintly sweet, the limoncello tasted like liquid sunlight, bottled on a warm spring afternoon by happy, singing people. (Okay, maybe it contained more alcohol than I initially thought…)
While the weather on the Amalfi Coast in February was cool and rather wet, the yellow lemons brightened every view and nearly every dish. I managed to get home with a big jar of lemon jam–the scent alone is a powerful reminder of a beautiful corner of Italy. Spread on homemade sourdough bread, it was an edible postcard. I’ll have to get some ricotta to go with tomorrow’s lemon jam & toast….