Limoncello: The Nectar of the Amalfi Coast
On the terraced hills of the Amalfi Coast, the Mediterranean sun and ocean air combine with volcanic soil to produce lemons the size of grapefruits. For hundreds of years, southern Italians have used the thick, juicy skins of these Sorrento lemons, named after the nearby town, to create a sweet tangy, liqueur known as limoncello (as the Italian word for lemon is limone). Historians suspect that limoncello, like many other regional liqueurs, was developed by local convents. In the 17th century, the nuns of Santa Rosa in Conca dei Marini used the lemon liqueur to make their famous lemon pastry, sfoglietta Santa Rosa.
For generations, local families have passed down their own recipes for macerating lemon peels to create limoncello. Only four ingredients may go into the liqueur – lemon zest (the colored portion of the peel), grain alcohol (or vodka), water and sugar – but Italians argue that much can go wrong if those ingredients are not up to par, or if the maceration process is interrupted. There are hidden pitfalls everywhere. For example, the limoncello may not turn out right if the alcohol is not strong enough. Some recipes allow two weeks for the mixture to ferment; others insist on as many as 80 days.
Many Italians most often enjoy limoncello, which is almost always served cold, as an after-dinner digestivo. They keep the bottle in the freezer, along with a few dainty shot glasses. Just as so many Italian families seem to have their own time-tested limoncello recipes, so do many restaurants. Owners often bring out the unmarked bottle of yellow liquid along with frosted glasses as a treat for their favorite customers.
Playing off its traditional function as an after-dinner treat, limoncello can be poured over ice cream, fresh strawberries or fruit salad to create a dessert with some zing. But limoncello can be used in just about every course. Coat fresh or shrimp in the liqueur before grilling.
Peel from lemons, picked no more than 48 hours before, are cut by hand and left to marinate in a solution of alcohol, water and sugar. The jugs are well covered and kept at room temperature so that the blend can marinate and gain the lemon taste and yellow colour. After resting for a month, the preparation continues by adding a pan of boiled water and sugar and then by leaving it to cool with some more alcohol. After 40 more days of resting, the infusion is filtered and bottled. Limoncello is stored in the freezer and is an excellent digestive; at the end of meals it’s become a social ritual as much as coffee.