The sweet, distinctively clean, and zesty aromatic flavour of Amalfi lemons that are grown along the rugged coast of the Campania area of Italy has made them famous all over the world. Eatsplorer delved a little deeper to find out exactly why they are so special.
In summer the Amalfi Coast is a feast for the eyes, a veritable garden of Eden with lush rose bushes, purple bougainvillea canopies, Jasmine creeping up awnings, fertile fruit trees heavy with fruit, and veggie patches in almost every garden. But it is the heady citrus scent of Amalfi lemons that really stands out.
Lemon trees are everywhere. They are grown on steep terraces on the coast, along the roadside, in gardens, and potted on balconies. The snaking roads of the Almalfi coast are dotted with fruit stalls proudly displaying these gorgeous knobbly lemons. So, it is only natural to be a little bit curious about what the fuss is all about.
What are Amalfi lemons?
Amalfi lemons are one of the most impressive lemon varieties from Italy and among the most highly prized lemons in the world. This is not your common garden variety, Amalfi lemons are a unique breed native to this spectacular corner of the world.
The botanist G.B. Ferrari was the first to capture the qualities of the Amalfi lemon in 1646. He wrote: ‘the nipple is prominent, the rind is rough, pleasantly scented with a sweet taste, the flesh has 8 or 9 segments, the taste is pleasantly sour”.
Locally known as ‘sfusato Amalfitano’ Amalfi lemons were named for their origin of cultivar and for the fact that the lemons have a particularly elongated, tapered shape not that different to a spindle, sfusato in Italian. This distinctive feature makes it easy to identify from the other rounder varieties of lemons grown elsewhere in Italy.
The unusually large and fragrant lemons that grow in the area between the Lattari mountains and the south-facing Amalfi coast are of the oldest cultivars and have a thick pith that is not that bitter, have few seeds, and produce at least 25% of their volume in juice, making chefs go mad for the stuff.
The Amalfi lemon is larger than the common lemon weighing at least 100 grams. It has a softer pale yellow rind of medium thickness which is particularly rich in essential oils according to studies by the Department of Chemical and Food Engineering of the University of Solerno, which clarifies why it has been coveted for centuries for its sweet flavour and powerful citrus aroma.
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Why are Amalfi lemons sweet?
Long hot summers and mild winters mean that the Amalfi lemon has ample opportunity to be sweetened by the Italian sun. It also grows in the same volcanic-enriched soil as the tomatoes of this region which are also famed for their special sweetness.
Inside, the flesh is acidic, semi-sweet, and very juicy. It is said that you can eat a good Amalfi lemon the same way you would eat an apple or orange if you so wish. Along the Amalfi coast, it is commonly enjoyed simply cut into pieces, sprinkled with salt, a drizzle of olive oil, and a scattering of mint.
Although almost equally sought-after, not all lemons grown in the area are necessarily sfusato Amalfitano, such as the somewhat rounder Sorrento lemon, limone di Sorrento cultivated on the Sorrento Peninsula. Also known as the Femminello Sorrentino or Limone Ovale it is slightly more acidic, or tangy than the Amalfi lemon.
The history of Amalfi lemons
Visit any ancient Roman settlement on the Amalfi Coast such as Pompeii and Herculaneum and you’ll see lemons, remarkably spindly-looking ones, illustrated in mosaics and frescos.
Although lemons were around in ancient Roman times, not least in Pompei, the Amalfi lemon, as it is known today has developed over hundreds, if not thousands of years.
It seems likely that lemons originally landed in Italy via merchants from the Middle East. This however would have been another variety, small, sour, and rather inconsequential. In fact, the original version of the fruit was said to have been pretty much inedible.
Lemons became established in Italy and were grown on the Amalfi Coast in Italy as a prime crop, especially for their high vitamin C value and important role in preventing scurvy, especially for sailors.
Vitamin C protects cells from damage and strengthens the immune system. The skin of lemons contains additional phytochemicals that are central to preventing disease.
By the turn of the eleventh century, local farmers had managed to crossbreed these lemons with bitter oranges, until they produced a form known as the nostrato, a great-great-grandparent of the Amalfi lemons we know and adore today.
Amalfi was a powerful seafaring republic back then, with a significant port in Minori and a wide net of trade routes reaching across the Mediterranean, and these unique lemons became a much-desired trade item.
By the 19th century, the lemon has assumed great social and economic importance and the massive task of moulding the previously uncultivated rural landscape along a stretch of land from Positano to Vietri sul Mare was complete.
The groves included towns such as Atrani, Cetara, Conca dei Marini, vFurore, Maiori, Minori, Ravello, Scala, Positano, Praiano and Tramonti.
How are Amalfi lemons cultivated?
Amalfitans are very proud of their farming heritage and citriculture methods have been the same forever.
It has been said that lemon farming on the Amalfi Coast is Agricoltura Eroica (heroic agriculture) because all the cultivation is located on what seems to be impossible farming land.
The Amalfi lemon tree is sturdy, has few thorns and grows pale green, elongated leaves with a tip that is slightly rounded. The purplish blossoms flower in May while the harvesting is done from February to October with the most fruitful phase in summer.
The trees are planted on terraces located on vertical soils, which thin out from the hills of the Lattari Mountains to the sea. The terraces are edged by dry stone walls built by hand in such a way as to manipulate the flow of rainwater, retaining enough water for the trees with the rest draining away.
The micro-climate of this region happens to be the perfect habitat for Amalfi lemons to flourish. The cool breeze comes inland over the ocean and gets trapped in the area’s sharp mountain valleys where it settles and creates an ideal habitat for the lemons to grow. The lemons are protected from the intense northern winds, whilst basking in the coastal sunlight over the majority of the year.
Whilst the climate and fertile volcanic soils are ideal, the steep terrain makes harvesting hard backbreaking work.
Traditionally the harvest was done by hand and involved the whole town. Lemon growers had to work extremely hard for their harvest climbing thousands of stone steps every day with large baskets to collect their fruit.
Choosing the lemons to be picked was a task reserved for men while transporting the fruit from the terraces was a job entrusted to women. Really surprising if you consider that a full load of lemons could easily weigh 50 kg.
Each grower sold their lemons individually and fishermen would transfer the harvest to larger ships moored offshore.
To this day, the rocky outcrops make the use of machinery impossible, and lemon growers have to continue the old traditions of cultivating and harvesting by hand. And yes, the freshly picked crop is still often transported on the shoulders of manual workers down the steep staircases, although some growers have installed a simple pulley system to save labour.
Amalfi lemons are not certified organic but grown along the same principles. Organic farming is a way of life and the lemon growers continue to snub the use of fertilisers and insecticides whilst considering the idea of waxing as repugnant.
The operation is now more equably shared however in a consortium and the lemon cultivation and processing are very much interwoven with tourism.
To discover the Amalfi lemon close up there are specially designed tours offered by certain producers. After all, who better to tell the story of the Amalfi lemon and give insight into the relationship between territory and sustainable agriculture?
The lemon groves along the Amalfi Coast bring another vital guarantee. The coastline is prone to dangerous landslides which the deep-rooted lemon trees play an important role in preventing. So, it would not be outrageous to say that Amalfi lemons are a real-life saver.
Protecting the special lemons of the Amalfi coast
The Amalfi lemon has been designated I.G.P. (Indicazione Geografica Protteta) status, which means that its qualities and reputation are derived from growing in this area that comprises the 13 towns of the Amalfi Coast, and according to these particular farming methods.
Ginino Aceto has been awarded the titles of Official Knight of the Republic and Cavaliere del Lavoro for his incredible efforts in this field.
The Aceto family is the promoter and founder of the Consortium for the Protection of the Amalfi Coast I.G.P Lemon, responsible for the promotion and distribution of this product’s special characteristics of excellence among consumers, traders, professionals, media, and tour operators.
Ginino says: ‘Always check for the I.G.P. logo when you purchase lemons, lemon liqueur, or baked goods such as panettone, this is the official guarantee that the lemons used were grown in the territory and according to the traditional rules of production.
What are Amalfi lemons used for?
The Amalfi lemon is incredibly versatile and ends up not only in incredibly delicious local dishes but also in famous drinks such as Limoncello (of course!) and a plethora of other products, from candles to preserves.
In the Eatsplorer food travel guide, we’ve put together our hotlist of foodie things to do in Positano, the type of tasty experiences that this picturesque coastal town is so famous for.
Local dishes inspired by lemon
The Amalfi lemon is particularly good to use for cooking because of its flavour and lack of seeds and plays a starring role in many local dishes.
You should not miss a thing – from thirst-quenching granite di lemoni (lemon ice) to mozzarella baked in hollowed-out lemon halves, lemon marinated anchovies, provolette, a smoked fresh cheese, which is grilled and served on a bed of lemon leaves, and spaghetti al limone. You have to dig in and try it all.
Because they are unwaxed, Amalfi lemons are ideal for recipes that call for zest or peel. The supercharged flavour of the lemon zest is one of the things that gives a lot of local dishes their tanginess such as risotto al limone, or ravioli de ricotta with grated lemon peel and mozzarella.
There is also the famous delizia al limone (sample one at La Zagara) – a simple little half-moon-shaped sponge cake soaked in limoncello syrup and covered with whipped lemon cream. Other desserts such as torta al limone and cannoli with lemon cream also utilize lemon peel in a tasty way.
Not a bit of lemon goodness goes to waste, even the leaves feature in dishes such as Frittelle de Ciceniello – small fish like sardines and anchovies deep-fried and served with crispy lemon leaves.
When the sweltering midday sun urges you to find shelter, make your way up the many stairs to the top end of via dei Mullini where you can buy granite di lemoni (lemon ice) from the quaint street vendor, made freshly squeezed from the famously fragrant, lemons of the Amalfi Coast. Lemon-heaven!
Limoncello with Amalfi Lemons
The most favoured product of all this lemon deliciousness is of course the famous Limoncello, a refreshing lemon liqueur that is usually served ice cold as a digestivo in a small, chilled ceramic cup after a meal, the perfect ending to a lovely summer meal.
Limoncello is a very traditional Italian liqueur. It is really a family tradition, most Italian families make it at home with their own ‘secret’ recipe.
During the ‘90s Limoncello became fashionable and what started as a family tradition became a product that travelled the world.
The key to Limoncello is the quality of its ingredients and the procedure. Italy’s pride in the liqueur rest primarily on the shoulders of the Amalfi coast, including the Sorrento peninsula.
While it is produced throughout the country including sunny Sicily, the limoncello from the Amalfi coast is especially prized for its quality.
True Amalfi coast limoncello is exquisitely bittersweet. But its success has led to the production of imitations, made either with essence or fruit that does not meet the quality expectations.
Keep your eyes peeled for the P.G.I. certification label and also the joint label ‘Terre Delle Sirene’, another indication that the famous lemons of the Amalfi Coast have been grown using traditional methods.
Brands that you can look out for, for ensured quality and originality are Limoncello Pallini and small-batch produced Limoncello Opera, Limoncello OBLO, and Limoncello Satinata Decoro Limoni that is sold in a satin bottle hand decorated in relief.
If you would like to get more hands-on with this delicious yellow drink join a fabulous limoncello-making class. The class not only begins with a stroll in the orchards and gets you involved step-by-step in the process but also spoils you with a private six-course lemon-inspired lunch. A real celebration of Amalfi lemons.
Other products made with Amalfi lemons
Apart from cooking, the famed Amalfi lemon also finds its way into many a product in Positano. No part of the lemon is wasted: a browse through the shops is a feast for the senses: lemon marmalade, curd, candied peels, syrup, chocolate, honey, biscuits, soaps, candles, oils, pasta shells, body creams, and liqueurs cram the shelves
If you are visiting the Amalfi Coast, you can easily experience the wonders of the lemon in your immediate surroundings, but there are wonderful experiences, tours of private groves such as the epic guided Lemon path hike from beautiful Maiori to Minori, or vice versa.
If you want to further immerse yourself there is also the Aceto Lemon Experience that will take you on a tour of the orchards followed by a cooking class.
Even if you don’t book a lemon-flavoured adventure, you can simply inhale deeply and enjoy the sweet fresh aroma of Amalfi lemons that permeates the air.
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Photo Credits: Eatsplorer, Liezel Norval-Kruger | The house of the Frutteto or the Floral Cubicles, Pompeii | Pallini | Aceto Lemon Experience