Stay among the lemon groves of Sorrento

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Rachel Olding

A grove of luscious lemons in Sorrento.

A grove of luscious lemons in Sorrento. Photo: Supplied

When life gives you lemons, you make breakfast, lunch and dinner.

At the Nunziata family's stunning farm in the hills surrounding the Amalfi coast, expect to be served lemon marmalade for breakfast, lemon rind and mozzarella on pizza for lunch, lemon cream profiteroles for dessert and, of course, enough Limoncello to sink a cruise ship off Capri.

People flock to what is arguably the lemon capital of the world to enjoy many things. There is the dreamy coastline of the Sorrentine Peninsula, the steep hillside resort towns, the mega-yacht lifestyle, the glistening grottos, the midday Limoncello, the gelati, the sunsets, the seaside Gucci stores.

Homemade pizza with tomatoes and rocket

Homemade pizza with tomatoes and rocket Photo: Supplied

But a stay in an Agriturismo like the Nunziata family's is a radically different way to experience life on the Amalfi coast. Here, it's all about the food, the drink, the famiglia and the local way of living. And the lemons. Lots of lemons.

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Guiseppe "Peppino" Nunziata's property, Il Giardino Di Vigliano, is one of a few working farms doubling as accommodation under a system introduced in the 1980s called Agriturismo.

Originally a way of saving the struggling farming industry in Italy, Agriturismos have become so sought after that fakes abound. They're not working farms and do not comply with the strict Agriturismo requirements, instead just capitalising on the "bed and breakfast" offering.

Gathering ground of the glamorous: the harbour on the Isle of Capri.

Gathering ground of the glamorous: the harbour on the Isle of Capri. Photo: Supplied

The Nunziata's lemon farm is about as traditional as they come.

Parts of the stone homestead have been sitting on this hill since the 1500s, over-looking the sloping lemon groves and olive trees of Sorrento and out to the Bay of Naples with Vesuvius standing grandly in the background.

Sixty-eight year-old patriarch Peppino, his wife Ida, their son Luigi, his wife Valentino and the family dog, Lucky, tend to the 300-year-old lemon trees and live in the same vine-covered residence that accommodates their visitors. 

Limoncello, the distinctive lemon liqueur, for sale in Amalfi.

Limoncello, the distinctive lemon liqueur, for sale in Amalfi. Photo: Supplied

This is not the place to be anonymous. It is, at times, a cosy experience reminiscent of a scene from Fawlty Towers but there is no better way to be immersed in the everyday life of old school Sorrentine locals.

For starters, lemons are their lifeblood. The fruit was first cultivated in the Massa Lubrense region by Jesuit monks in the 1700s and trade boomed in the early 1900s but lemons almost disappeared when cheap exports from Spain and Greece swamped the market.

Then, Limoncello came to the rescue.

Hiking the Sentiero degli Dei, path of the gods, in the Lattari Mountains along the Amalfi Coast.

Hiking the Sentiero degli Dei, path of the gods, in the Lattari Mountains along the Amalfi Coast. Photo: Supplied

Most of the 2500 kilograms of lemons grown each year by the Nunziatas – huge, oily-skinned, aromatic things like nothing you've ever seen in Woollies – are sent to the nearby factory of Limoncello Di Capri, one of only a handful of producers who make the sweet digestif that the Amalfi coast is famous for.

The rest end up on the dinner table.

One the first night, Ida brings our small group into her quaint, terracotta kitchen to make pizza for dinner.

Caprese ai pomodori gialli (red & yellow tomatoes & mozzarella).

Caprese ai pomodori gialli (red & yellow tomatoes & mozzarella). Photo: Supplied

Nothing is done the quick way by traditional Italians. Ida makes almost everything that ends up on the red-and-white check table cloth. The olive oil is made using olives grown at Peppino's brother's farm next door, the mozzarella is churned by hand using milk from the resident cow and, like many traditional Italian households, they make their own "house" red wine, a relatively cheap drop for everyday consumption kept in big vats and casually drunk from tumblers.

Mounds of airy dough are splayed out on the tiled bench, basted in mozzarella and lemon rind and slid into a wood-fired oven that hogs more space in the tiny kitchen than anything else. (And it's fired using the wood of the lemon trees, of course.)

Minutes later, fresh, plump Napoli pizzas oozing with mozzarella and garlic oil are pulled out and added to a growing dinner table feast. There is homemade Italian sausage, glistening slices of mozzarella wrapped in grilled lemon leaves, focaccia with olive oil, plates of freshly chopped tomato and basil and a seemingly never-ending supply of red wine.

The next morning, the table is once again a pretty mosaic of porcelain dishes filled with lemon marmalade, homemade butter cake, crisp bread, mini pancakes and hot coffee. The lesson here: come to an Agriturismo prepared to eat.

During the day, the Nunziata family work on the farm, leaving guests to explore the area or just pick a sunny nook in the garden, beneath the hanging lemon trees, to relax with a good book. 

Day trips to Capri, Pompeii, Positano or Sorrento are easily done. By late afternoon, Limoncello is waiting on the rooftop terrace as the sun sets like a yoking egg over the bay.

The Nunziatas make a small amount of their own Limoncello to drink themselves and serve to guests. But before we drink, we have to earn it.

Luigi gives a 15-minute lesson on how to make the incredibly simple drink and the history of it.

His father Peppino – "el custoda de jardin" – still does everything by hand, from building the wooden structures that protect the lemons from rain and hail to picking the fruit several times, year round. There are only a handful of farms that still do it this way and it's five times more expensive than using machinery, "but it's tradition," Luigi says.

The end result are lemons that are big and beautiful but also expensive. Without the Limoncello industry, Il Giardino Di Vigliano probably wouldn't have survived.

It's a glimpse into the rich history of farming in this country, the tough life of those who carry on the traditions and the absolute reverence Italians hold for their food and drink, made the right way. Simple, fresh and rich with flavour.

After class, it's time to drink: limoncello, prosecco and even some lemon grappa made by Luigi, just for fun. A four-course dinner is waiting downstairs – lemon risotto, fresh salad with lemon dressing, zucchini flowers, bruschetta, roasted rabbit, red wine and lemon profiteroles for dessert, all made by Ida.

After three days nestled in the hills with the Nunziatas, taking part in everyday life and making much of the delicious food we eat, they almost feel like family. There are warm hugs and barely translatable goodbyes when it's time to leave.

Like any good nonna, Ida has stocked us up with bottles of their own Limoncello and olive oil for the road. And a few lemons, just for good luck. 

LIMONCELLO 

Sorrento and Amalfi have been famous for their lemons since the 1800s but it was only 20 years ago that they started bottling Limoncello for sale rather than just making it at home for family and guests.

Limoncello, a sweet digestif usually served at freezing temperature, is endemic to the area and can only be made using lemons grown on the Sorrentine or Capri coast.

Even those lemons must have a special classification to indicate that they are grown and cultivated a certain way. For example, they must be grown in traditional terraced gardens.

Ironically, it is only the skin of the lemon used for Limoncello. The rest of the fruit goes to waste. 

Sorrento lemons are huge in size and have a skin that is so soft, oily and aromatic that it is edible. In fact, the Nunziatas often serve lemon slices – skin and all – covered in sugar for dessert.

Luigi Nunziata says that the tell-tale sign of a good Limoncello is if it can be drunk at room temperature. The aromatics come through rather than the taste of cheap alcohol and lemons being masked by the freezing temperature of the drink.

Making Limoncello is incredibly easy. Peel the skin off seven lemons and put them in a jar with one litre of pure alcohol. Leave it for 24 hours to a week. Then add one litre or water, 650 grams of sugar and stir. Bellissimo.

FIVE DAY TRIPS WHILE IN SORRENTO

POMPEII The ancient city buried by the world's most famous volcano is about an hour from Sorrento by car. You could easily spend a whole day or just a few hours wandering through the brothels, public toilets, baths, homes and bars. New parts are constantly being excavated and opened to the public, meaning a visit is always different.

CAPRI Slip on your espadrilles and your Dolce & Gabbana dress, this is where the rich and famous come to play. The prices are outrageous, the yachts are hogging the marina and the tourists are swarming but it's still possible to find a peaceful nook at Anacapri on the opposite side of the island. Ride the fernicular to the top of the mountain for a million-buck view.

THE WALK OF THE GODS Starting at the tiny hillside village of Bomerano, this half-day hike around the dramatic cliffs of the Amalfi coast is an almost holy experience. It's an easy walk for all ages and passes through traditional villages and picture-book scenery. Save some energy for the finish – a cruel 1300 steps down to Positano.

POSITANO Smaller than Sorrento and less hectic than Capri, Positano is the quintessential Amalfi town. Navigate its tiny alleyways of shops and bars or nab a banana chair on the stoney beach. A walk through the near-vertical town is a workout-and-a-half so you better stop at one of the hillside restaurants for seafood and wine. 

THE BLUE GROTTO At 13 euros for entry, it's probably a rip-off. But the experience of visiting the famous Blue Grotto, off the coast of Capri, is hilarious. Old Italian seafarers crowd the entrance, singing Italian opera and loading tourists into their rickety boats. Once through the tiny rock archway, you swish around the cave for a few minutes, look at the eerie blue light beneath the surface and then you're back out in a matter of minutes.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION www.gadventures.com.au G Adventures runs seven-day "Living Local" trips to Sorrento, staying at an Agriturismo and experiencing local life for $1599. Day trips are organised for you.

GETTING THERE Several major international airlines fly frequently from Sydney and Melbourne to Rome. See www.qantas.com.au or www.singaporeair.com. From Rome, local airlines fly several times daily to Naples, the closest airport to Sorrento. See www.alitalia.com. The fast train line is a cheap and easy way to travel from Rome to Naples. See www.trenitalia.com. The journey from Naples to Sorrento is about an hour by road or rail.

STAYING THERE Il Giardino de Vigliano, a 16th century lemon farm and home-stay, is nestled in the hills of Sorrento about two minutes drive from the main town and the beach. Rates start at about 60 euros a night. See www.vigliano.org.

The writer travelled to Sorrento courtesy of G Adventures