As the old saying goes, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” But may we might suggest a more flavorful and unique use for those lemons? One word: limoncello. The bright yellow liqueur is as sunny as its place of origin – Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast in Italy – and the lemon itself has become an enduring symbol of Sorrento’s rich history and gourmand heritage. When you’re on a trip to the Amalfi Coast, it’s hard to miss the beautiful groves of lemon trees that line the coastal road.
When it comes to limoncello, the prized product of these yellow fruits, it’s best to go right to the source rather than settle for just any sugar-laden imitation. Yet, in order to properly appreciate limoncello, first we need to take a look at its creation as well as its ties to Sorrento. Bottoms up!
What Is Limoncello?
At its most basic, limoncello is an alcoholic digestif, a liqueur that is traditionally imbibed after a meal in order to help facilitate digestion. It’s an opaque yellow, and created by steeping lemon zest (no white pith!) in alcohol before being mixed with simple syrup (boiled water and sugar). Quite a bit of sugar is added during the making of limoncello, which tones down the sourness of the lemon and makes it very sweet, almost like a dessert drink. It’s also meant to be very cold when you drink it, so it’s extra refreshing during hot weather. (Although limoncello is intended to be imbibed straight from the freezer, you can also use it to make mixed cocktails if the sweetness is too much for you.)
Limoncello’s origins have been disputed – many believe that the creation of the liqueur dates back to the Middle Ages – but British journalist Lee Marshall states that there is no proof that limoncello was widely drank before 1988, when entrepreneur Massimo Canale of Capri began to mass produce limoncello and distribute it far and wide.
Relatively young as it may be, limoncello is the second most popular drink in Italy. Its popularity as both digestif and regular drink has spread throughout the world – and we have Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast to thank for that.
The Connection to the Sorrento Peninsula
The Sorrento Peninsula may be beautiful to look at it, but you wouldn’t think that it’s suited to growing, well, anything really. Its rocky cliffs that make it nearly impossible to farm – except for the lemon trees that may be a holdover from Roman times. Though the lineage of these trees may date back to the early 100s, it wasn’t until the 10th or 11th century that lemons were recognized as an important economic incentive for the region.
Although lemons are well known for being high in vitamin C, health food was never quite in the future for these enormous, fragrant lemons of Sorrento. The coastal farmers continued to shape lemon tree terraces along the mountainsides, which would eventually bear a harvest of lemons that would become renowned throughout the world for their quality. Much like champagne in France and parmesan cheese in Italy, the two types of regional lemons – Limone Costa d’Amalfi and Limone di Sorrento – are marked with IGP status, a symbol of a unique food that can only be authentically produced in that part of the world. And it’s these two types of lemons that are known for producing the very best limoncello; their shiny skins are untreated and full of essential oils that impart deliciously strong flavor into the alcohol.
These days, a visit to the Sorrento Peninsula will find many local dishes created using lemons, yet none quite as vivid as the after-dinner beverage that takes its name from the fruits of the Amalfi Coast cliffs – and the product of many years of hard labor to create a home for the trees.
It’s easy enough to stop by the liquor store and pick up a bottle of limoncello – Rossi D’Asiago is a popular brand imported from Italy – but if it’s true authenticity you’re looking for, take a trip to the Amalfi Coast or the Amalfi Coast and Sicily. There’s nothing like tasting the heritage of Sorrento in a cold glass after a full, wonderful meal of Italian food.
Have you tried limoncello yet? What did you think of it?