If there’s one symbol of the Amalfi Coast that brings together the historical, cultural and gastronomic identity of the Amalfi Coast, it would have to be the lemon. Not just any lemon, a unique variety called the sfusato amalfitano that is only grown on the Amalfi Coast. This special citrus fruit has left its mark on the area, its economic history and quite literally has transformed the landscape of the Amalfi Coast. Where once the mountainside dropped uninterrupted to the sea, there are now terraces of lemon groves, each one painstakingly constructed stone by stone and cultivated in the most extraordinary manner.
This one glorious fruit brings the history and culinary traditions of the Amalfi Coast directly to the table. It is a symbol of the Amalfi Coast that is very close to the hearts, or should I say stomachs, of the locals. Let’s take a look closer at the lemons of the Amalfi Coast. You’ll never look at the terraces of lemons quite the same way again!
The sfusato amalfitano lemon takes its name from the word “fuso” meaning “spindle” due to its distinctive long and tapered shape. They are prized for their thick and highly scented skin, the low acidity of the juice and few seeds. Due to the limited and unique growing area, the sfusato amalfitano has been awarded the IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) recognition, which means Amalfi Coast lemons are only authentic if grown along the coastline.
While the sfusato amalfitano lemon is so strongly tied to the Amalfi Coast, it isn’t in fact native to this area. Originally from the Himalayas, the variety as we know it today was primarily cultivated by Arab farmers. In today’s world of global trade and travel, it’s humbling to think of the epic journey the first lemon plants took to arrive in Sicily and then later to Amalfi. In the Middle Ages, the Republic of Amalfi had trading ships crisscrossing the Mediterranean and to Byzantium. That’s a long journey for a lemon tree!
Yet lemons have been cultivated in Campania for much longer. Frescoes preserved at Pompeii and Herculaneum reveal that long, tapered lemons much like the sfusato amalfitano were grown by the ancient Romans since the first century. While it seems they were more interested in the plant for its decorative features, it’s clear that lemons loved the temperate climate and fertile soil of this area. That long journey was worthwhile!
Intense cultivation of lemons on the Amalfi Coast began between the 10th and 12th centuries, primarily between Amalfi and Cetara. As you can imagine, finding room to grown anything on the Amalfi Coast is a significant challenge. Over time the landscape of the area has been transformed by this tradition, with entire swaths of mountainsides cut into the now distinctive terraces supported by stone walls. They’re especially easy to spot in the winter when the terraces are covered with a black netting to protect the trees from freezing rain and also to control their growth.
Harvesting the lemons of the Amalfi Coast has always been backbreaking work. So, naturally, before the days of trucks, the lemons were hauled to the closest beach to be loaded up on ships to be exported. Around Minori and Maiori, which was once the largest production area along the Amalfi Coast, the lemons were carried down to the beach in Maiori where they were painstakingly packed in crates and loaded on to ships to be sent all around the Mediterranean and even as far as North America.
In the historic photograph below, taken in 1915, you can see woman carrying crates on the beach in Maiori. If you’ve thought climbing the steps on the Amalfi Coast was tough, just imagine doing it with a crate of lemons on your back. Incredibly, that is still the way lemons are harvested today!
This was 1915, in the peak period of lemon production, where steam ships would arrive and carry the Amalfi Coast lemons even further than ever before. The terraced lemon gardens are still quite active since the cultivation of lemons remains an important part of the local economy. One of my favorite walks this summer was along the Sentiero dei Limoni, The Pathway of the Lemons, a stone path surrounded by terraces of lemons that leads from Minori to Maiori. From those very terraces 100 years ago lemons where carefully harvested and carried down the mountain to the beach far below. While the method of transportation has changed, the landscape and atmosphere of the quiet lemon terraces high above Minori could easily be a century ago.
Naturally, it’s not just the landscape where lemons have left their mark. They have worked their way onto the table and into the culinary traditions of the area. From the antipasto to the famous lemon-infused liqueur limoncello, there isn’t a course where you won’t find the lemon. Squeezed over fried calamari, dressing salads, creamy risotto with a zest of lemon, provolone grilled on lemon leaves, served atop fish, lemon cakes, lemon gelato and the list could go on and on. In Amalfi, you can even get a small slice of lemon rind added to your espresso.
Of course, the most noted and also widely exported lemon specialty of the Amalfi Coast is limoncello. This strong liqueur is traditionally served at the end of a meal straight from the freezer in chilled glasses. It is made by infusing pure alcohol with the rinds of lemons and then blending it with a sugar syrup. Many families and restaurants produce their own, so it is often served with pride to visitors. If you can stand a bit of a punch, it really does capture the intense flavors of the sfusato amalfitano.
Goethe captured the allure of southern Italy when he described it as “the land where lemons grow.” They have certainly left their mark on the Amalfi Coast, one that is appreciated just as much today by locals squeezing lemon juice on top of a dish of lemon and shrimp risotto and travelers sipping their first limoncello. I hope that lemons will continue to be cultivated here according to the traditional methods for many more centuries to come. That depends upon the continued appreciation of its unique properties and integral role in uniting the best of the Amalfi Coast’s culture and traditions – all in one tart, deliciously yellow lemon.
Italy Blogging Roundtable
This blog post is part of a monthly series called The Italy Blogging Roundtable. Every month our group of Italy based writers takes on a new theme, and you can read about this month’s topic – From Farm to Table – at the links below. We’d love to hear your thoughts and comments. Please share the stores if you’ve enjoyed them!
Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to Georgette from Girl in Florence to The Italy Blogging Roundtable!