Los Angeles, 24 December 2022
One of the duties which my wife and I have as grandparents is to walk our newborn grandchild around, mostly to put him asleep but also just to keep him occupied while his mother gets herself ready to feed him. When it’s my turn, I like to take him into the back garden to admire the plants there – well, I fondly imagine that he’s looking at the plants, although in my more sober moments I recognize that he hardly distinguishes colours and shapes yet.
One of the plants in the back garden is a lemon tree – more of a lemon bush, actually, but still covered in lemons.
We pick the lemons off the bush and use them in the typical way, on fish, in sauces, in tea. But we have difficulty keeping up with the bush’s production and I’ve been thinking on and off about what other – easy – uses my daughter could put the lemons to (in principle, they could be used to make lemon tarts and what have you, but that requires far too much work). It just so happens that we’ve returned from a lightning visit to a couple who live in Seattle, old friends from the distant, distant past. As we chatted about this and that, they happened to mention that they would soon be getting a couple of bottles of home-made limoncello from a friend. A light went on in my head.
Could my daughter and her partner be making limoncello with their lemons?
For those of my readers who are not familiar with limoncello, it is a lemon-based liqueur whose origins lie somewhere in the south of Italy. Here’s some shelves with a number of different limoncello brands on them.
On the face of it, it’s quite easy to make. Drop lemon zest into pretty much pure alcohol. Let the zest steep for several weeks to make sure that the alcohol extracts all the essential oils and aromatics in the zest, by which point the alcohol will have taken on the product’s characteristic yellow hue which you see in the photo above. Add syrup, that is to say, water with a lot of sugar dissolved in it. Let the mixture stand for another couple of weeks. Strain out the zest. Bottle. Voilà! Or actually, since we are talking about an Italian product, Ecco!
Of course, it’s not really ecco!; the devil, as they say, is in the details.
Let’s start with the lemons. Since their whole purpose is to imbue the alcohol with essential oils, the sources insist on using types of lemons whose zest is packed with these oils. That’s one thing I learned in researching for this post, that there are many types of lemons. In my ignorance, I had assumed that a lemon is a lemon is a lemon. Eh no, amici miei! There are actually many types of lemons, 30 to 40 depending on the source you read. And – vital for our story – some have more essential oils in their zest than others.
Now, I have no idea what type of lemons are growing in my daughter’s garden. I just have to hope that they contain sufficient amounts of essential oils for a passable limoncello to be made from them. But if my readers are are interested and have a choice, a good lemon to use is the limone di Sorrento which, as the name suggests, originally came from the Sorrentine peninsula and now grows all around the bay of Naples (and has been exported around the world, so it is almost certainly available somewhere in California).
Somehow, the locals living on the Amalfi coast managed to get the lemon certified as having Protected Geographical Indication under the name of sfusato amalfitano; they must have enjoyed taking over the name and thumbing their collective noses at the Sorrentini! One of those wonderful stories of local rivalries in Italy, which I’ve mentioned in an earlier post.
In any event, it’s certainly true that the little towns along the Amalfi coast have been most vociferous in their claims to be the source of limoncello, although there is no solid evidence to this effect. Here, we have one of those vociferating towns.
There is a rather fanciful Creation Story doing the rounds, which involves the grandmother of the owner of a bar on the Amalfi coast. He offered his clients this wonderful lemon-based liqueur made the way his dear old grandmum used to make it, using the same lemons from the old lemon trees which grew in her lovely little garden … the rest is history! I rather cynically suspect that the Amalfi coast’s claims have something to do with the locals’ pressing need to find an outlet for all the lemons that grew there. There was a time when the various navies of Europe bought them to deal with scurvy, and the steep, rocky hillsides were turned into a tapestry of tiny lemon orchards to meet the demand.
With the bottom of that market dropping out, another outlet was needed if all these slips of lemon orchards were not to go to rack and ruin. Limoncello seems to have saved the day. I read that more than half of the Amalfi coast’s lemon crop is now used to make the liqueur. In passing, I should note, in case any of my readers are interested, that some enterprising people have organised a Sentiero dei Limoni, or Lemon Trail, which runs from the village of Maiori to the village of Minori through the lemon orchards, under the trellises over which the trees grow.
Having good lemons is a necessary but not sufficient condition for making a good limoncello. The manner in which the zest is removed is also key. The sources are most insistent on this. No pith must make its way into the brewing limoncello! It will add bitterness. One source suggests that even a vegetable peeler is too risky, a microplane should be used, and the zested lemons should look like this at the end of the process (also showing the zest and the microplane).
But that leaves a lot of wounded lemons. I’m sure my daughter could make a lemonade, or a sauce for a fish dish, but what, I wonder, do commercial producers of limoncello do with the tonnes of lemons they’ve zested? The sources are silent on this point.
Pithless lemon zest is also a necessary but not sufficient condition to make a good limoncello. There’s the alcohol into which you put the zest. As I said earlier, the sources talk about using pretty much pure alcohol, what’s called rectified spirits in the trade, with some sources strongly suggesting to use an alcohol with nothing less than 90% alcohol by volume, i.e., 90 ABV or, to use the older system, 180-proof. For me, that’s like saying that your alcohol should come from a place like this.
I would prefer to use something more natural, something distilled from fruit or grain or tubers, out of a pot still like this.
And I would like this equipment to be used by some farmer somewhere, like these French farmers, so-called “bouilleurs de cru”, who were caught in the act of making eau-de-vie by the French painter Henri-Edmond Cross in this painting of 1893 (by the way, “bouilleurs de cru” were farmers who were given a tax-free, and hereditary, privilege by Napoleon to make eau de vie, in order to boost production of strong alcohol for his troops).
A number of sources suggest using vodka (no doubt because it has little or no taste of its own, a fact well-known by those who are in need of an early-morning shot but don’t want others to smell it on their breath). But, alas, I read that a number of vodka brands are actually made by taking industrially-made ethanol and simply adding water to reduce its strength to more drinkable levels. So I suspect that going for a cheap brand of vodka to make limoncello (no point buying an expensive brand…) would not actually avoid using alcohol produced in a chemical refinery.
In any event, I think there is something fundamentally wrong in using a Polish-Russian alcohol to make an Italian liqueur. We need an Italian alcohol! Which really means using either grappa or acquavite (both made with grapes, but grappa uses the pomace generated during wine-making, while acquavite is made with grape must and pomace). Of the two, I would plump for acquavite, for two reasons. First, grappa is primarily made in the north of Italy, so that wouldn’t do for a southern Italian product – see my comment above about local rivalries in Italy. Second, I was thrilled to learn that the technique of distillation was reintroduced into Europe in the 11th Century by the doctors at the medical school in Salerno, who in turn picked up the technique from the Muslims in Andalusia. Here’s a Medieval miniature showing the good doctors at work.
What’s so wonderful about this is that Salerno is a mere hop, skip and a jump from the Amalfi coast, and those worthy doctors used the newfound distillation technique to make acquavite! Well! Even though the good doctors made their acquavite for medical purposes, that’s enough of a coincidence to make me say that acquavite has to be the go-to alcohol base for limoncello. There is a small-scale producer of limoncello on the Amalfi coast by the name of L’Alambicco who agrees with me; its owner declares that his product is made with acquavite made in-house. That being said, I’m embarrassed to say that as far as I can make out the only commercial producers of acquavite are all from the north of Italy and generally also make grappa. So, rather unwillingly, I throw in here a photo of a bottle of acquavite from one of these northern Italian producers, chosen, I have to say, more for the pleasant shape of the bottle than for the quality of its contents.
After all that, though, my daughter might have to opt for vodka. The fact is, I’m not sure she can find acquavite in LA (there’s a fancy Eataly store here, which carries grappa – at hideously high prices – but no acquavite).
So now we are at the last step in the process. Two things are happening here: sweetening and dilution. To this effect, the sources suggest using a concentrated solution of sugar in water. As far as dilution is concerned, I suppose that depends on what the ABV or proof of the original alcohol was. Anything with an ABV of around 40 (proof of around 80) probably won’t need dilution, while anything with ABVs above that, will. But that depends on whether or not one likes one’s liquor that grows hairs on one’s chest, as they say.
As for the sugar, the quantities added is a matter of taste. The couple in Seattle, for example, prefer the limoncello made by their friend because his product is less sweet than commercial brands. I would tend to agree with them, commercial limoncelli do tend to be too much on the sweet side. But hey, sweetness is on the tongue of the taster (to mangle the saying about beauty being in the eye of the beholder). As for the type of sugar to use, most people – my daughter included, I’m sure – would stretch out their hand for the cane sugar they have in their kitchen cupboard. And I understand that; why make your life more difficult than it has to be? But since I took the high road of localism with the alcohol, I feel I should point out that cane sugar actually originated in New Guinea and South-East Asia (and was then exported all around the world), so I now make a plea for using a more local source of sweetness. For instance, staying with the grape theme, one can now find grape sugar on the market. I throw in here a photo of one such product, made by an American company – but with Italian grapes! A very pleasing coda, I find, to this post dedicated to an Italian product.
Here’s a more romantic photo of this type of sugar.
Well, with that, I make a toast to all my readers, may you all have wonderful end-of-the-year festivities! cin-cin!