Why the World’s Best Lemons Come from Italy’s Amalfi Coast

August 15, 2018

One of the most delicious lessons I’ve ever learned was delivered in a most unforgettable way. Sudden thrashing sounds of someone— something—approaching had scared us to death. But happily, it was two Italian farmers that finally appeared, and they grinned at us, because they could see we’d made a mistaken assumption about the thrashing heralding danger. Then, with bashful pride and patience, they taught us why the world’s best lemons come from Italy’s Amalfi Coast. Let me explain.

A couple of hours earlier, in the dappled shade of lemon trees, we had spread the bed sheet we borrowed from a hotel in Rome. We then rested quietly for a few minutes. The path between the terraced slopes that brought us here had been steep. In the welcome heat of the day, the plump, dimpled, yellow fruit overhead dangled like lanterns. The warm air was infused with a soft, fruity perfume that would have made us sleepy, were it not for the fact that we were already in a dopey kind of ecstasy induced by the dumb beauty of being in an Italian lemon grove on the Amalfi Coast.

After all, this fragrant clearing with a spectacular view of the distant lapis-lazuli-colored Mediterranean Sea was exactly what I’d pictured when I’d read a description of southern Italy by the German writer Goethe: He described it as “the land where lemons grow.” I was in a stuffy car that smelled of rain-soaked wool on the London Underground, and, reading Goethe’s words, I knew the Amalfi Coast was where I wanted to go for my term break—it would be a respite from the endless rain and pewter skies of autumn in London, where I was spending a year studying abroad.

I dragooned three friends into joining me, and after a few days in Rome we arrived on the Amalfi Coast, where we were instantly spellbound by its beauty, its weather—even in October, it was warm enough to wear nothing but a T-shirt—its stunningly good food, and a shockingly delicious and instantly addictive locally made yellow elixir called limoncello. The latter was made by infusing pure alcohol with the rinds of lemons and then mixing it with sugar syrup. Many restaurants served it after dinner and on the house.

Since we were students traveling by the seat of our pants, we probably would have liked anything served on the house. But limoncello…it was so delicious that we almost yelped with pleasure when the nice, old woman who owned the Sorrento restaurant where we’d eaten returned with the bottle and poured us a second round. She sweetly reassured us that this round, like the first, was free, “A gift from me!” We followed these two servings with a third limoncello in a café that definitely wasn’t free but was delicious enough we didn’t care.

We met the morning a little fuzzy-headed but still caught a local bus to Amalfi. Here we visited the iconic Amalfi Cathedral, and then, not having enough money to eat in a restaurant again for a few days, we shopped for a picnic of bread, cheese, ham, fruit, and a bottle of alarmingly cheap wine. In search of a pretty spot to have our picnic, we trekked up and past the town and into the steep slopes behind it.

“These must be the lemons they use to make limoncello,” my friend Joel said as we set up our feast. We knew he was right from their lovely perfume. Though tempted to taste one of the lemons bobbing overhead, we didn’t; an unspoken sense of propriety reminded us they were private property growing on private property where we likely shouldn’t be. So we satisfied ourselves with our picnic and were happily dozing or reading when the thrashing sounds started. All four of us sat up straight.

Two men, one white-haired, the other much younger, dropped from the terrace above and landed next to us with a thud. “Tedeschi?” the older one asked us. “No, siamo Americani,” I replied, using the tiny bit of Italian I knew to explain that we were American and not German. “This is our farm,” said the younger one in English. “It’s very beautiful, and your lemons are delicious,” I said. “Oh, did you taste them?!” “No, no, of course not, but we had some lemon pasta last night in a restaurant, and it was delicious.” He yanked a lemon off a tree, twisted it open, and offered it to me, adding, “Our lemons are so good you can eat them like fruit. They’re the world’s best lemons!” He introduced his father as Gaetano and himself as Daniele and explained that he’d worked in the merchant marine. He had traveled all over the world and recently come home to take over the family lemon farm because his father wanted a rest. Gaetano, a sturdy, nut-brown man with bright blue eyes and a full head of black hair, spoke no English but smiled and nodded as his son spoke. “My father’s 90 years old and has been working on the farm since he was 11,” Daniele told us. Gaetano had a good hard laugh when
he saw our jaws drop. He looked barely 60. “Hard work is good for you,” he said, and his son translated. “Also, eating lots of lemons!” he added, and we all laughed.

Daniele explained that his family had been growing lemons for generations and that the fruit has been cultivated on the Amalfi Coast since Roman times but really developed between the 10th and 12th centuries. Local farmers had created the distinctive local variety known as Sfusato d’Amalfi (fuso means spindle in Italian and is a reference to the elongated shape of the fruit, which also has thick nipples at both ends). They crossed the bitter oranges indigenous to the area with lemons that had come from the Middle East (scientists using genetic testing have discovered lemons originated in China). Originally, the Italian lemons proved useful to navies and business owners who bought them in bulk to stave off scurvy by providing vitamin C on long sea voyages. Eventually the lemons found their way into local cooking in a variety of guises and attracted the attention of the world beyond Italy when the Amalfi Coast first began to emerge as a tourist destination in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Slowly, the Amalfi region turned into a major lemon-producing zone, and the fruit was exported all over Europe and even as far as the U.S. It was prized for its thick, perfumed skin, low acidity, and very low concentration of seeds. The peak year for Amalfi lemon production was 1915. It went downhill after that because the two world wars caused many locals to trade farming for better-paid factory work in the north of Italy or abroad.

Amalfi Coast Italy

As we picnicked on Daniele and Gaetano’s lemon terrace, many of the other farms in the lemon belt—Minori and Maiori, traditionally the largest lemon-producing towns, but also Amalfi, Atrani, Cetara, Conca dei Marini, Furore, Positano, Praiano, Ravello, Scala, Tramonti, and Vietri sul Mare—were falling into disrepair. Because the steep terraces on which the lemon trees grow are essential to keeping the landscapes of the Amalfi Coast healthy—the terraces prevent landslides and flooding and their green canopy also keeps the region a little cooler—Daniele worried that no one was replacing his father’s generation of farmers. A loss of lemon farmers didn’t just mean fewer lemons, but increased risk of landslides and warmer temperatures. Many farms were being lucratively sold as building sites. “The problem is that it’s basically impossible to mechanize the production of Amalfi Coast lemons, because the terraces are too small to support heavy machinery of any kind, so everything must be done by hand,” he told us.

Visiting the Amalfi Coast again last fall—some 25 years after Daniele gave me my first lesson in its famous lemons—I was happily reassured about the future of these groves. I walked the magnificent Sentiero dei Limoni (literally “The Footpath of the Lemons”), which runs from Minori to Maiori. Both above and below the hiking path, there were still, as far as the eye could see, lemon orchards under thick netting. I heard the crashing noises of the i contadini volanti, “the flying farmers.” Like a troop of acrobats, they scampered above and under the sturdy trellises of chestnut wood stakes that hold up the lemon trees, pruning, training, and harvesting lemons in an annual cycle that hasn’t changed in centuries.

After the two world wars, Spain’s entry into the European Union in 1986 challenged Italian lemon producers with a flood of cheap citrus. But that same year, the Slow Food movement was founded in the Piedmont town of Bra; it helped Amalfi lemons. With Slow Food came an appreciation for geographically specific, traditionally farmed Italian produce, especially lemons bearing an Amalfi Coast I.G.P. (Indicazione Geografica Protetta), a label that legally attests to their authenticity as having been grown there.

Recognizing that thousands of travelers who visit the Amalfi Coast every year are fascinated by their lemon farms, several locals have set up tours of groves, which include explanations of their history, the growing cycle, and usually a tasting or two. The Amalfi Lemon Experience begins on the steps of the cathedral in Amalfi and includes visits to the groves and a small-but-fascinating farm museum before a tasting of various products produced with organic lemons.

My favorite way to celebrate the fruit, however, is to head to Ristorante San Pietro, a locals’ favorite in Cetara. I always have the same meal there—spaghetti with butter, Parmesan, and freshly squeezed lemon juice and then a tartare of ricciola (amberjack) with a light sauce of lemon juice and olive oil. (The former is not on the menu—you have to ask for it.) The last time I ordered this meal, it was from a friendly older waitress and the day was drizzly. She nodded approvingly and said, “Even when it rains here, there’s always plenty of sun stored up in our lemons!”