Based on local traditions and histories, lemon trees were introduced at Lake Garda in the thirteenth century by Franciscan friars who had convent in Gargnano. It is not clear the origin of the first plants. This has happened between 1200 and 1300.
“You don’t need a secret recipe to make great limoncello,” says Fabio Gandossi, whose family tends Limonaia la Malora, a centuries-old citrus grove in Gargnano, on the shores of Italy’s Lake Garda. “You just need a lot of lemons and they need to be the very best.” His elixir contains only a handful of ingredients: water, sugar, and 94% grain alcohol infused with slivered lemon zest. It makes for a subtly sweet sipper perfumed with sunshiny citrus, a far cry from the cloying, lurid yellow shots doled out in touristy trattorias.
It takes a full two dozen lemons to give one litre its characteristic saffron hue and intense aroma. Local lore has it that the lemons grown in this region of the lake – dubbed the Riviera dei Limoni – were once so prized that Russian tsars had them specially imported. The first groves date back to the 13th century, when Franciscan monks in Gargnano began to cultivate them and produce liqueur.
These days, few lemons are grown on Lake Garda’s shores: winters in northern Italy are too harsh for most citrus trees. Further south on the Amalfi coast, milder winters and scorching summer days produce enormous specimens so mild that they are often eaten raw, thinly sliced and dipped in sugar. In contrast, cooler northern temperatures result in bracingly sour fruits with exceptionally fragrant zest – perfect for limoncello. Seedlings are usually grafted on to the roots of sour orange trees to help them survive the winters.
When the first signs of frost appear on water buckets dotted around the limonaia (lemon house), Fabio’s father, Giuseppe, covers the grove with glass panels to form a makeshift greenhouse, just as generations have done before him.
“For us, the cultivation of lemons is a part of our history,” says Gandossi. The market for Lake Garda lemons declined in the 20th century in the face of competition from the south – which, not needing elaborate measures to protect trees from frost, had much lower production costs. Of the hundreds of lemon houses that once dotted the lakeshore, only a few remain. When Giuseppe found his, it had been abandoned, with only a few surviving ancient trees. Decades of care brought it back to life. “It’s important that people understand this piece of our culture. It represents a part of our past.”
• Limonaia la Malora offers private, Italian-language tours and (from January 2017), tastings for groups of 10 or more for €3pp
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