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The Passion and Grace of Lemon Farmers on the Amalfi Coast

An ill-conceived hike on the Amalfi Coast serendipitously brings our contributor to the sanctuary of a lemon farm for a first-hand encounter with these regional gems and the people who grow them.

10:49 AM EDT on August 23, 2023

a photo of lemons from the Amalfi Coast.

Lemons of the Amalfi Coast.

The Amalfi Coast is the most beautiful place in the world. Spending almost all of my summers in Italy, it has always been a few minutes away to escape to paradise. I fulfilled my dream of getting married there, and it’s where I have always wanted my ashes spread. Little did I know, on an almost 100-degree day, with the entire world, especially the South of Italy, facing record heat, I faced what seemed a certain death, only to be resurrected by the grace of lemon farmers!

I climbed the mountain to go from Minori to Maiori. At one point in the two-hour hike, I was wondering if I'd made a big mistake. I knew my legs would start trembling once I did the descent to Maiori. My shirt was soaked in sweat and weighed quite a bit.

I stumbled upon what seemed like a mirage: a lemon farm. I then met Giovanni Ruocco and his wife, Nadia. They were extremely welcoming, good-looking…and dry! They invited me into their farm, Agricola Ruocco, but I quickly warned them I was a soaked, sweaty mess. “Non ti preoccupare!” I was told not to worry and immediately offered a limonata. OK. Then a granita. Sure, I took that, too!

Giovanni started cutting some lemons to try. On the coast and the islands, these sweet citrus gems, unlike the American sour ones, are eaten like apples, skin and all! The albedo, the white part under the yellow peel, is edible and thick; the locals call it "pane” (bread). A salad is made using this limone pane.

The writer of the story under a lemon tree on the farm he visited on the Amalfi Coast.
Our contributor, Gianluca Rottura, under the lemon trees of Agricola Ruocco.

For my tome Ma, What Are You Cooking?, I made sure to dedicate a good portion to the lemons of the Amalfi Coast. For me, it’s important to get to know the people, the artists behind the art. These artists are scientists and even risk their lives for their passion. Many of the 80+ year old farmers are called “i contadini volanti” - the flying farmers, because of how they acrobatically hang off the steep cliffs to care for and harvest their lemons.

The steep cliffs are dramatic and beautiful, but the carefully designed terraces use the roots of the lemon trees, that dig deep into the soils, to hold up the structure itself and protect the towns and people below. 

Giovanni is a 4th generation lemon farmer and could not wait to show me his family’s lemon grove. As we talked, it was not just me that got excited. Giovanni and Nadia were very surprised to hear me talk about all I knew, which is a fraction of the knowledge they possess. As I mentioned malsecco, the fungal disease that plagues the lemon trees, and my respect for the flying farmers, we all realized how great this experience was about to become. 

Experts like Giovanni love nothing more than to share their love with the world but even more so with people who care enough to learn about it on their own. I decided to keep my mouth shut and just let the artist speak.

A lemon farmer showing some of his chopped lemons.
Giovanni Ruocco of Agricola Ruocco displaying his lemons.

Giovanni took me to see his lemons and introduced them to me like they were his children, just before meeting their actual child! It is important to note that seeing lemon groves this close, where you can just walk through them and pick them off the tree (if no one is looking) is harder than you would think. The nearby Sentiero dei Limoni, Path of Lemons, allows you to walk by the groves, not in them, where you could press your nose up against these spectacularly beautiful gifts. At Giovanni's, it's all possible, with a guided tour.

Agricola Ruocco does things the old-fashioned way and thank God! Leaving aside the very hard and dangerous work of growing these lemons, they build their own water canals that manage the rainwater flow. They even build, by hand, the pergolas that lift the lemons higher up to get more sun. Each wood beam is tied by willow branches. They could use synthetic ties, but Giovanni, with his father and uncle, strip the willow with their teeth and hands, piece by piece, to tie the beams together. I looked at Giovanni and said, “I hope you charge more for your lemons.”

The Amalfi Coast lemons have about double the aromatic compounds, like terpenes, and essential oils than any other lemons. They are sweeter, too. Besides eating them like apples, they make the famous lemon liqueur Limoncello (also a cream version) and even Rosolio, and find their way into dishes like Pasta with Lemon (see recipe in my latest book) and desserts like my wedding cake, Delizia al Limone. My dear father would always caution me against using synthetic ingredients for deodorant and suggested just using lemon juice! That, I’ll have to hold off on!

The sweetness of the lemons comes at a cost, paid for by the farmers. When a wall crumbles on the farm, it can cost 15,000 Euro and the farmers get zero help. If people really knew how good these lemons are and the work that goes into them, with no guarantee or safety net, they would pay double the amount. We need to protect these lemons and farmers the way they protect the towns below from landslides. The root of the overused word “passion” means suffering. Some of the best art comes from profound passion. And you can taste it in Amalfi lemons.

This video of Giovanni will further demonstrate what has been described in this story.

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