Last weekend I took a trip to the Amalfi coast with some friends and, at the suggestion of a colleague from the foreign press association, we decided to try and find Salvatore Aceto and his lemon farm.
After landing in the port of Amalfi, teeming with tourists dragging trolleys and buying trinkets, we pushed past the crowd, glanced quickly at the stunning Cathedral with its gold mosaics and black and white marble and climbed up the steep slope. We passed the tourist shops selling leather sandals and linen dresses and up, up, up the hill, past the paper museum to the entrance to the Aceto Lemon Farm.
You can see the lemon trees from below, a green mass rising up the steep hillside.
We asked for the owner, Salvatore Aceto, and the message came down from the top of the hill to go through the gate and up through the lemon grove to find him.
Inside, lemons, like giant yellow drops, hung off wooden frames, in groves along the terraced hillside. I gently scratched the skin of one and a strong lemon scent filled my nostrils. I was in lemon heaven.
Salvatore met us halfway up the hill, his straw hat protecting him from the intense Mediterranean sun.
He was bursting with energy, “come on up, we have lemon cake and lemonade ready, a tour is just ending.”
Panting, we reached the terrace overlooking the lemon grove and sat down with Salvatore. His wife Giovanna was nearby preparing a lemon cake and a cousin served us a delicious sweet lemonade.
Above hung long strands of what looked like thick twine (“salici” is what Salvatore called them) that they use to tie the trees to the frames.
Salvatore is the 6th generation in his family to run the lemon farm taking over from his father Luigi who is now 84. Salvatore said his father, whose photo hangs on the wall above, is the real expert who comes to the groves every day and climbs up on top of the frames to work on the lemons. He even still carries crates of lemons on his back if no one stops him.
Salvatore said he regularly clashes with his father who likes to come up and tell all the workers how to do things better. “Bisticciare” he called it. Bickering about how to best cultivate the lemons. It gets on his nerves, but, Salvatore admitted, his father really does know better than anyone else how to handle the lemons.
Salvatore at first rejected the family lemon farm and became an accountant, but in 2013 he gave up crunching numbers and began squeezing lemons. He said he uses lemons for everything. He puts lemon juice on cuts and rubs lemon peel on his skin to keep off mosquitos.
Salvatore said the type of lemons they produce, the Sfusato Amalfitano, were first brought to the Amalfi coast from Jerusalem in 1000 A.D.. The lemon descendants, are still there today.
The Aceto family began cultivating lemons in 1825, saw a period of success in the 1930s and then prospered after World War II. Now they have over 2,000 lemon trees from which they produce 95 tons of lemons a year. Thirty-five percent of those lemons go into making Limoncello, the sweet yellow lemon liqueur made on the Amalfi coast, and some of the lemons go to the United Kingdom to be used in making a lemon soda drink.
But 95 tons of lemons are not enough to keep the farm going. Salvatore says tourism has saved his farm. They now offer Lemon tours every day for tourists visiting the Amalfi coast.
Salvatore jumped up from the table. “I have to run down to our other property, we have 40 Americans coming in to visit our place near the port in an hour. Want to come?” So I hopped in his lemon colored golf cart with him and zipped through the narrow streets of the town and down to the port.
As we passed through the town, waving to traffic cops and dodging tourists, Salvatore explained that tourism has been saving him. He said he gets about 40 American tourists a day, who come up for a tour of his property. After the tour, they get lemon cake and lemonade. To keep all the tourists well-fed Giovanna makes four to five lemon cakes seven days a week. But it is not just Americans, they are popular among South Koreans, Australians and Europeans.
Down in the port, Salvatore parked the golf cart and we began the walk up the hundreds of steps through the lower groves to another terrace. My leg muscles were burning and the sweat was running down my spine as I tried to keep up the pace. We finally reached the terrace with the breathtaking view out over the port and along the coast.
As I looked out at the lemon groves stretching down to the sea, and breathed in the scent of lemons in the air, I thought I could use a little more lemon zest in my life.
Maybe I should buy a lemon zester.
P.S. Apologies for the way the paragraphs appear. Word Press has been acting up on me recently turning my simple paragraphs into something that looks like I am attempting poetry, which I am not. I am too busy and hopeless with these things to figure out how to turn the Haiku-look back to normal.
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.