It’s commonly believed that Italians have a more virtuous relationship with alcohol than the rest of us, because they reportedly only drink wine with food. Not like the Anglophone philistines who stand around quaffing booze for its own sake.
One word: limoncello.
You don’t know what hard drinking is until you’ve seen a bunch of little old ladies, swathed in black, getting stuck into the after-dinner limoncello.
Limoncello (or lemoncello) is a liqueur from Italy’s Amalfi Coast, made from Sorrento lemons. It’s nothing more than lemon zest macerated in alcohol, with added sugar syrup. Served super-chilled, it goes down easily, thanks to the combination of acidity with sweetness.
The alcoholic kick on the end isn’t bad either.
Most limoncello found in Australia is imported from Italy, with one notable exception. Libero de Luca, a former restaurateur from Adelaide, is a limoncello maestro who learned his craft in Italy.
“I learned in two different places,” de Luca says. “For nothing, just to learn how to make it. I had to show my passport to prove I was from Australia, that I wasn’t competition.”
For six weeks, he was made to peel lemons and given just a glimpse of the production process, leaving him to fill in the gaps himself.
When De Luca returned to Adelaide, he began making small batches of the liqueur, using freshly picked lemons from either the irrigated orchards of the Riverland, or from Melbourne, depending on the season.
“The Riverland lemons are sort of yellow,” de Luca says. “In Melbourne they’re much more green because it’s cold, there’s more acidity. I adjust the recipe for that.”
Every lemon is peeled by hand, to ensure that none of the bitter pith goes into the mix. “We peel four to five hundred kilograms by hand. It takes three people about four hours,” he says. “It’s the oil in the zest that makes the limoncello.”
De Luca’s now sells more than 60,000 bottles of Ambra Limoncello annually. He won’t give away his secrets but reveals that he soaks the lemons in grape alcohol for up to four weeks and adds a sugar syrup.
There are limoncello recipes freely available on the Internet that suggest adding the peel to either vodka or grappa for up to 10 weeks, but de Luca says they don’t work very well, as neither drink extracts the oil properly. “You’ve got to use the right alcohol,” he says. “It’s got to be about 96 per cent.”
Depending on the lemons, the final liqueur may vary in colour from pale lemon to green. De Luca said he was disappointed to find the Italians now use stabilisers, to keep the colour a consistent yellow.
“It doesn’t taste the same,” he says. “The Italians come over here now and say our limoncello is more natural.”
Locally made limoncello is about 25 per cent alcohol by volume, while the Italian version is more likely to be 35 to 45 per cent alcohol. Chilled, it can be mixed with tonic water, lemonade or used in cocktails, or poured over fruit or pancakes.
Whatever you do with it, protect your bottle, because the stuff disappears fast. And, boy, is it lethal.
But, if you find yourself with a limoncello headache the day after, remember, you weren’t the first.
Notably, actor Danny de Vito slurred his way through a television interview after a night of limoncello indulgence. But in the best Hollywood fashion, he took full advantage of the unfavourable publicity and launched his own lemoncello into the US market this year. It is, apparently, a hit.
Libero de Luca’s creation is very sweet, with a strong citrus smack and a smooth aftertaste.
500ml, 25 per cent alcohol
Higher in acidity and very refreshing. The fresh, lemony smell makes you think the stuff is innocuous and you can drink lots of it. It isn’t – and you can’t.
500ml, 32 per cent alcohol
This article first appeared in The Age.