Much in evidence in shops on the Amalfi coast are small hot peppers (which apparently have properties beyond culinary—in several stores I saw a sign by them saying “Viagra naturale”) and lemons. These aren’t the small, bright yellow, waxed-to-a-shine lemons you see in American supermarkets; they’re large, paler yellow, often with irregular, pitted skins. Lemons in southern Italy are grown for taste, not looks.
The traditional liqueur (now popular throughout Italy) is Limoncello, beautiful to look at, fragrant, and highly potent. You drink a very small amount, ice cold (but not over ice), after dinner as a digestivo. The closest I got to Limoncello when I was in Italy was a Limoncello gelato, though I did take a bottle back for the friends with whom I stayed in London.
I don’t actually care that much for for it. Like champagne, the idea and associations are—to me—better than the reality. Part of the trouble is that it’s too sweet and not lemony enough for me. But the recipe’s simple (lemon peel, 100 percent proof alcohol, sugar, and water), so I’m making my own and taking liberties with the recipe to make it more tart. You can’t get 100 percent proof alcohol here (I don’t think) but many recipes give as an alternative 100 percent proof Vodka. I had half a bottle of 80 percent proof left over from a long-ago party, and I’m using that.
Here’s the traditional recipe (which I halved):
2 pounds of lemons
4 cups of 100 proof alcohol
3 cups of sugar
3 cups of water
Peel the lemons thinly—there should be little or no pith. Steep the peelings in the alcohol at room temperature. Instructions for the time vary from three days to several weeks, but it seems to me that longer is better. (I’m going for three weeks.) The alcohol will take on the flavor and color of the lemons. At the end of the steeping period, make a syrup from the sugar and water, add to the alcohol, strain, bottle and store in the fridge for 40 days.
A week into the process, it looks pretty and smells wonderful. When it comes time to add the syrup, I’m going to make it with the juice I squeezed from the peeled lemons instead of water and probably cut back on the sugar. It should be ready around Christmastime, and I’ll let you know what it tastes like.