Limoncello, the Drink of the Amalfi Coast
There are many Italian after-dinner liqueurs, or "digestivi," and each region boasts its own favorites. If you take a cooking vacation to the Amalfi Coast, be ready for some limoncello, the lemon liqueur that has grown in popularity outside Italy as well.
What exactly are digestivi and what makes limoncello different? Italians have very precise ideas about what ought to be eaten and when, and in what order, and tied to these traditions are firmly-held beliefs that they affect one's overall health. Thus you always start with the carbohydrate-heavy course, and then the meat or fish -- never the other way around. A green salad would never be an appetizer or stand-alone dish, only an accompaniment to the protein. And after dinner (after cheese, dessert, fruit, coffee -- Italians do love to eat!), a digestivo is thought to aid the digestion of all that came before. Digestivi are usually pretty alcoholic (sometimes are simply a glass of liquor), but are more often either a grappa or a bitter (amaro) or sweet liqueur. And speaking of sweet liqueurs...
Limoncello in Italy is not necessarily sweet, although it does contain sugar. Definitely the varieties one finds in the US are sweeter and more syrupy than their Italian counterparts. What sets limoncello apart are the lemons, and that is precisely why it originated on Italy's glorious Amalfi Coast, home not only to striking, cliff-side coastlines, but also to wonderful lemon groves. A sip of limoncello should be like taking in the essence of the lemon, but with the harsh tartness removed. You can discover more about how limoncello is made here.
How does one drink limoncello? I was once with a group of university students in Italy and when the waiter served them limoncello to finish off their meal they drank it like a shot--not the way to do it! Yes, it is served in a small ("shot") glass, but that is because it's high in alcohol and you don't serve very much. It should be sipped, savored, enjoyed for each drop of lemony goodness.
Once when visiting our best-selling Amalfi Coast cooking vacation, Mediterranean Cooking Experience, I had the chance to make limoncello. Chef Carmen took us to see Nonna Rosa, a dear friend of the family, at their local olive and lemon farm. We took organic lemons from their trees, shaved off long strips of lemon zest, placed them in a large jar of 190-proof grain alcohol and were told to leave it sit for a couple weeks before adding sugar and water. My trip home was interesting, as I chose to pack my lemon concoction in my carry-on baggage. (Needless to say, this was before the liquid restrictions when flying.) The airport personnel in Naples didn't blink, but I was connecting through Munich. They removed my jar of half-made limoncello (which, when I was standing in the security checkpoint, suddenly looked like what it was, an old mayonnaise jar full of very flammable liquid -- oops), shook it a couple times, asked me what it was and called over their supervisor. I again explained. "It's a lemon beverage. Something you drink." I mimed drinking. He shook it again, replaced it in my bag and waved me on.
I still make limoncello, usually only in the summer when I can find good organic lemons. But without the Amalfi Coast to ripen them, it just never quite tastes the same.
Taste the best Italian limoncello during an unforgettable cooking vacation to the Amalfi Coast. We're running a special promotion for May travelers: book A Mediterranean Cooking Experience for May 2014, and we'll include the cost of the Pompeii trip as well as a complimentary room upgrade (based on availability). And, if you are a solo traveler, we'll waive the single supplement. Contact us for details!
By Peg Kern