Question: How do you cheer yourself up when returning from Italy’s Amalfi Coast to the Australian winter?
Answer: By making a batch of Limoncello, obviously.
While any Italian worth their salt will tell you you can’t really make authentic Limoncello in Australia, sometimes imitation is the best form of flattery. If you do decide to take this course of action, your timing will be spot on. This zesty, intense liqueur can only be made with organic, unwaxed lemons – just like the ones your next door neighbour’s been pressing on you for weeks.
We’ll come back to this dangerously delicious substance later, but, first, let’s go for a healthy walk.
The charming town of Positano lives up to the hype, but its narrow streets and winding mountain roads can quickly become clogged with tourists in the summer months.
Up in the mountains, many local families have turned properties into B&Bs with stunning views over the coast, and there’s even a bus service to take you there.
We stayed not far from the village of Montepertuso, where we could sit on a balcony watching clouds drift over the mountain tops.
Below, roads snake down to Positano’s little black beach with its white frill of waves, while in the port ferries go in and out all day, taking passengers to Sorrento, Amalfi and Capri.
The Amalfi villages are connected by ancient footpaths that would have been trodden mostly by shepherds, farmers and peasants. The lovely stone paths are remnants of a time before buses and cars, and although punishing on the calf muscles, to walk them is to glimpse a sense of the rural village life of days gone by.
We tackled the Sentiero degli Dei, or Path of the Gods, starting at Nocelle and ending at Bomerano, though you can walk up from Positano (if for some reason you want to add an extra 1500 almost vertical stairs).
The walk took us past shopfronts and the brightly painted doors of houses decorated with flowers and ribbons, then through farms and orchards, offering breathtaking views of the coast at every turn.
It’s hard on the legs, but you’re soon distracted by the tinkle of goats bells and the ringing of church bells, as you wander through olive trees, pass beneath lemons, figs, terraced vegetable gardens and the odd statue of a friendly saint.
A perfect reward for all that walking is a meal at the unassuming, yet clearly quite famous, il Ritrovo restaurant in Montepertuso, offering excellent food served with warm Italian hospitality.
And of course, Limoncello.
For the purposes of my research I contacted Jon Caneva, director of Don Giovanni’s in Melbourne, who is a Limoncello expert and purist.
Jon’s grandfather arrived in Australia in the 1920s and opened the first Italian club in Melbourne in 1935, and later, the Queens Head hotel in Ballarat. Four generations of the family have since worked in hospitality.
“A family friend, Theresa, used to make Limoncello and give my father a bottle every now and then,” Jon said.
“When I asked her for a bottle she gave me her recipe. After a lot of procrastinating I decided to bite the bullet and produce an authentic Limoncello here in Melbourne.”
The secret, Jon confides, is using lemons that have a thick skin, often called Sorrento Lemons. Only the peel must be used, not the white pith, which will make the brew bitter.
“Many backyards in Australia are probably growing a variety of Sorrento lemon,” Jon said. “The other secret is using 95% food grade ethanol and being patient. It takes a minimum of three weeks to produce a batch.”
The above grappa is not readily available in Australia, so can you make it with vodka? (Asking for a friend).
While the use of vodka has been known to happen, it wouldn’t pass the Nonna test. And according to Jon, even a lot of the imported stuff to be found here is not the real deal either.
“I have spent a lot of time in Capri, Sorrento and Positano trying Limoncello and believe there are a lot of good Limoncellos produced in Italy, but many of the ones exported to Australia are not up to scratch,” he said.
Tough job description, Jon. But for me, one of my favourite memories of Italy will be sipping a glass or two after walking the Path of the Gods, with the lights of Positano twinkling below. About as close to heaven as you can get.