Villa Massa: Lemons of Sorrento
Earlier this year, MIXOLOGY author Liv Fleischhacker was able to catch a glimpse behind the Villa Massa Limoncello production in Sorrento, Italy. Here she shares her experience of what it’s like to be surrounded by lemon groves and life close to the glittering, blue sea.
Naples, and its neighbor the Sorrento coast, is usually known for its mild climate. As luck would have it, I happen to land in the hottest week this part of the country has seen for a long, long time. It’s mid July and the sun is scorching but frankly, there’s not much to be upset about, because I’m about to see the real life lemon grooves of Sorrento.
A Lemon ain’t a Lemon
I love a good lemon. No, let me rephrase that: there was never a lemon that I didn’t take liking to. The lemon is probably my most used kitchen ingredient. I use it for my morning hot lemon water, to brighten up soups, liven up salad dressing, and creamed into egg yolk and sugar for a delicious shmear. When I’m feeling particularly accomplished, I even use it to clean the aforementioned kitchen. All this to say, I really love lemons. Which is why I was incredibly excited for Villa Massa’s invitation to come see how their Limoncello is made. In Sorrento, home of the famed limone di Sorrento.
Before this trip I used to think of Limoncello as a, usually too sweet, treat my father would bring me as a souvenir from various vacations in the Mediterranean. I’ve since learned better. Villa Massa isn’t just any Limoncello, no no. The recipe they use has been kept within the family since 1890. The two Massa brothers brought their product onto the market in 1991 because they wanted to preserve the local tradition and enable the rest of the world to discover it. Villa Massa uses only Sorrento lemons. Now kids, you might think you know lemons and a lemon is a lemon is a lemon, but no. The Sorrento lemon is a heavenly gift to us mere earthlings. It’s larger than what you’re used to seeing, it’s more oval, and the skin is bursting to the seam with essential oils.
The Lemon Groves
After I landed at the airport in Naples, Villa Massa’s Director of Spirits for the EMEA Gabriele Langella took me to see the lemon grove. A gorgeous scent lightly perfumed the air as we walked through olive and walnut trees. The grove is home to several different trees, in fact it is often referred to as the kitchen garden, because various fruits and seeds, that are useful in the kitchen, grow here. It’s huge, around 7,000 square meters, with seven different levels and the lemons are cultivated traditionally. When Gabriele handed me a lemon, I lightly pressed the tip of my nail against the skin and it practically exploded.
One of the reasons why the lemons here are so special, is because they are grown in volcanic soil, which is incredibly rich in nutrients. The Sorrento lemon is an experience to be had. In the grove, there’s a small spot that will do wonders for big city souls. High above the olive trees, somebody has built a treehouse of sorts, where one can enjoy the view over the lemon groves and the ocean. Off in the distance, the water glitters with a breathtaking intensity, a couple of white clouds drift by, and the sweet, sweet taste of lemons lingers. In this moment, there was absolutely no other place I would have rather been.
For the next stop on our tour, we headed to the Villa Massa production sight. Only natural ingredients, and very little of those, are used to make Villa Massa: sugar, water, alcohol, and lemon peel. To this day, the lemons are still handpicked and the production process has remained the same for over 100 years: the freshly peeled lemon skins are macerated in alcohol, then distilled twice. The alcohol stems from beetroot molasses. Each batch is a bit different from the next, but the team of experts at the lab ensures continuity of the final product through their controlled use of simple syrup. In 2008 the EU distinguished Limoncello as an agricultural product. For a Limoncello to be christened with the title ‘Liquore di Limone di Sorrento’ only Sorrento lemons can be used and the production must take place in the same region where the lemons are harvested. It is 100% natural and its one true star is the ‘Limone di Sorrento’. The product is shipped as fresh as possible. Fun fact: Villa Massa is the first Limoncello to be exported to Israel, thanks to its Kosher certification, and it is often enjoyed for Passover.
The whole management is devoted to quality control and because of that, the production facility has a top notch quality control center. The company is also involved in sustainable projects: lemon peels that would traditionally go to waste are used to grow fungi, which in turn are being used as an experimental, organic pesticide to further move away from harming chemical ones. It’s an experiment that’s worked very well so far and will continue to be rolled out.
A real-life Slice of Heaven
Limoncello has done wonders for this little spot in Italy. Because of the high quality of the Sorrento lemons, and the following success of Limoncello, the Sorrento lemons has become a IPG product (Protected Geographical Indication). This resulted in the area being incredibly well taken care of. If not for this, Sorrento would have been in danger of going the way of many a Mediterranean town: succumbing to hordes of tourists and high-rise hotels. Instead, Sorrento seems almost out of our time, an incredibly lush and green spot. In winter, only around 1,500 people live here.
All this to say, if you’re a lemon lover like me, you must at some point in your life make your way to the small town of Sorrento. Make an appointment with the friendly folk of Villa Massa, have them show your around, and experience the lemon groves for yourself. Enjoy the shade of the olive trees while sipping on a Villa Massa Tonic (Villa Massa Limoncello, tonic water, and a whole bunch of ice, with a sprig of rosemary) and watch the clouds lazily float by.
I finally understand what Gabriele said to me shortly after I landed: the locals have a hard time understanding the concept of heaven, because after spending your life in Sorrento, there is no way it could get any better than this.
Foto: via Villa Massa