Amanda has moved to Lake Garda to stay at the magnificent Villa Feltrinelli (SO much more on this in a later post…) where the edges of the south west side of the lake are peppered with the remains of lemonaia, or lemon houses. Back in the 19th century (and before) these huge structures were responsible for the area's reputation for fabulous quality lemons, allowing the trees to have up to four harvests a year -about 500 lemons. The giant structures, a bit like tall glass-free greenhouses, were open during the hot summer months, but when it chilled up in the winter each lemonaia had wooden struts which slotted onto the top of the building to keep the heat in (they didn't use glass as it would encourage too early growth in spring, risking frost damage).
Competition from Spain and Southern Italy, combined with the expensive winter maintenance, some early 20th century disasterously cold winters and tree killing virus has made almost all of these lemonaia redundant, although they remain a major part of the landscape architecture along the coastline of the lake.
Villa Feltrinelli has renovated its lemonaia and planted it with over 40 new lemon trees, although the winter wood strut system is replaced with a more practical modern covering. There is a little house made of the old struts at the side of the lemonaia that you can rent out.
A walk through the trees is like therapy for your nose, the smells of lemon and lemon blossom (heavenly) is mixed with the herbs grown in smart terracotta pots for the kitchen, which are placed in the spaces on the lemonaia's walls. All the lemons are used in the kitchens for all manner of scrummy things, teenageson and I had what the think might have been the best pudding we have ever eaten, a fluffy lemon sorbet/flume concoction with flowers and tiny leaves from the herb pots scattered all around.
It would be impossible to reproduce these lemonaia at home in the UK, but it doesn't stop me dreaming of how I will be attempting to grow a lemon tree on my return and will be talking middlagedad into helping me construct some sort of lemonaia-lite in the back garden.
This area is also renowned for its lemon produce, including limoncello, a wonderful lemony liqueor that every family makes themselves here a bit like we make jam. Scroll below the pics of Feltrinelli's lemonaia for a recipe for limoncello, which I found in a book on the lemonaia houses here at the hotel. It sounds incredibly easy, but where on earth do you buy pure alcohol (90%)? Would vodka do, do you think?
Please note I haven't made this recipe yet, although I intend to as soon as I come back and can visit Borough Market to get some nice lemons. Here is how it appears in the informative The Lemon Gardens of Lake Garda, by Leila Losi.
8 nice lemons, washed and dried ( the lemons here are big BTW)
350 grms sugar
400 grms water
400 grms 90% alcohol
A glass jar with an air tight screw top.
Peel the lemon skin off with a potato peeler or zester taking care not to include the bitter pith.
Place the grated zest and alcohol into the glass jar.
Make a sugar syrup out of the sugar and water (heat the water with the sugar until gently boiling, simmer for a few minutes) and let it cool.
Pour the sugar syrup over the zest and alcohol and put on the lid. Leave for 24 hours, then shake it about for a minute, leave again for 24 hours. I think I am going to be unable to resist shaking the mixture a bit more than this when I make mine, but whatever…
Strain, and pour into prettier bottles, with airtight lids, and leave in a cool dry place for at least a month.
Then drink, with caution. I once had two limoncellos at the end of a (admittedly pretty drunken) dinner party and couldn't feel my face for two days. ONE is enough, however delicious, I have learnt.