Lemons And The Amalfi Coast

by Diana Farr Louis

"The Amalfi coast is like a beautiful woman, full of curves but less dangerous."

It's the kind of remark one expects from a (male) Italian guide, and we all chuckle despite the somewhat sexist innuendo. And catch our breath as we peer out our windows at the mountainside plummeting into the sea beneath us and virtually piercing the sky above. The coastline of this peninsula between Naples and Salerno makes the Riviera and the Cote d'Azur look tame. And yet almost every inch of it, apart from the slivers of beach and the villages wedged between the precipitous slopes, is cultivated.

In plots no bigger than a tour bus the Amalfitans grow lemon trees, rather than the vines or olives so typical of the Mediterranean. Each miniature terrace holds a mere four trees, veiled like women in mourning with thick nets to protect them from wind and cold. Treated so tenderly, the trees repay the attention. Their roots keep the soil in place, their fruit has been linked to the area's prosperity for two thousand years.

Shaped like an American football, three or four times the size of an ordinary lemon, and remarkably sweet, these lemons (called sfussato locally) resemble their larger cousins, the citron. They came to Amalfi with Jewish settlers in the early days of the Roman empire, although most histories maintain that the Arabs brought them a thousand years later. Nevertheless, the Romans loved them for their glossy leaves and you can see them depicted in frescoes in Pompei. They also survived the Dark Ages thanks to the Byzantines who inherited the empire.

The 8th century saw the rise of the Duchy of Amalfi, whose navies for a time rivaled Genoa, Pisa and Venice in the search for trade in the Mediterranean. The republic thrived for another four centuries before being nibbled by Normans and eventually swallowed by Pisa. These were the years when the peninsula's ports took shape, and each one still revolves around its main square dominated by a grand church, begun in that long ago era. The cathedral of Sant'Andrea in Amalfi itself boasts a Romanesque facade decorated with a checkerboard pattern of black and white marble, a sculpted bronze door lifted (by the Normans before 1066) from Constantinople, and a cloister rimmed by delicate columns forming interlocking arabesques -- and indeed they were installed when Moorish influence was at its height. But to me the most charming aspect of these Amalfi churches is the tiles roofing their domes and bell-towers. These are almost inevitably mosaics of yellow and green, as if in imitation of the lemon trees crowding the hills around them. They are so much more colorful than the sombre grey forts and castles, also a legacy of the Normans, hunkering at regular intervals on promontories all along the coast from Sicily as far north as Liguria.

While Amalfi was enjoying its heyday, at Salerno to the south, four doctors -- a Greek, a Roman, an Arab and a Jew, according to legend -- founded a medical school. Predating by at least three hundred years the more famous university at Bologna, the oldest university still in existence in Europe, the Scuola Medica di Salerno represented the four main fonts of current knowledge. In time, the fame and wisdom of the Medical School spread all over the continent. Crusaders wounded in the Holy Land sailed to Salerno to be treated and the Regimen Sanitatus Salernitanum, a verse poem of rules for healthy living, was widely consulted for remedies for every conceivable ailment. It also listed one hundred ways of using lemons, apart from eating them: perfumes, soaps, essential oils, pectin, as a hemorrhage preventer, household cleanser, etc.

Of course, one of the main medicinal uses of lemon juice before the age of steam was to prevent sailors getting scurvy during long sea voyages. Although the British did not become known as Limeys, because of their practice of dosing seamen with an ounce of lemon or lime juice per day, until the 19th century, the Italians had discovered the role of citrus juice in warding off the disease as early as 1400. Genoese merchants especially paid handsomely in gold for Amalfi lemons that would keep their sailors in fighting form.

But nothing lasts forever. The universities at Naples and Bologna eventually put the Salerno Medical School out of business, the Amalfi coast lost its allure to more exotic trading spots in the Orient. Yet its beauty lay waiting to be rediscovered by a new wave of westerners, descendants of the Normans, after they explored the antiquities at Pompei while on the Grand Tour. This time, a hill town, Ravello, stirred the imaginations, not of merchants, but of artists, writers and musicians. Two eccentrics created -- with the help of talented locals -- romantic, eclectic gardens with eye-popping belvederes overlooking the spectacular coast. Villa Cimbrone, built by Lord Grimthorpe, attracted virtually all the Bloomsbury group; Villa Rufulo, whose original buildings date from the Renaissance, is said to have inspired Wagner to write the last act of Parsifal, and is today host to a summer music festival. Gore Vidal arrived in 1948 in a jeep driven by Tennessee Williams, followed by a stream of beautiful literati and illuminati, who brought busloads of tourists in their wake.

On the rainy April day when I visited the Amalfi coast, I saw neither famous individuals or crowds of foreigners. If I had been with an ordinary group, I might have been discouraged by the downpour. But as one of many food writers invited by Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust of Boston, I soon found that the famous lemons were more than enough compensation.

Our first stop was a lemon grove (connected to a house, not carved out of a sheer mountainside) in Minori, where we were seduced by the incredible perfume of the freshly picked fruit. Our hostess peeled off strips, leaving bands of thick white pith, and sprinkled sugar over thin slices. We were eating lemons as if they were oranges, and nearly as sweet. Then we crowded into a small distillery where limoncello, a liqueur that is fast nudging out grappa as Italy's favorite after dinner drink, was being made. A few sips to whet the appetite and we were off to Salvatore di Riso's pastry shop where five sublime lemon-scented delicacies were presented for our approval. The delizia alla limone, sponge cake filled with lemony cream, from an 18th century recipe, baba au citron (not rum) and profiterolles au citron (not chocolate) had us swooning. But a magnificent multicourse lunch at Maria's hotel/restaurant in Ravello was still to come. After wine and several more sips of limoncello as a coda, we might perhaps be forgiven for succumbing to a siesta. We had thus disregarded all the advice of the Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum, printed in our conference program. Written in 1479, it still holds true but is not always easy to follow.

If you want to feel well, if you want to live in good health,

banish grievous thoughts, do consider anger harmful.

Drink soberly, eat moderately, do not consider useless

getting up after lunch; avoid the afternoon sleep."