Growing any crop is a huge gamble… growing lemons on the hillsides of the western shore of Lake Garda means facing almost impossible odds. First, the latitude — lemons generally are grown between the 40th parallel north and the 40th parallel south, and Lake Garda is at 46 degrees of latitude, north of the equator. Next, the climate — unlike Sicily (the Italian region most of us associate with lemons), Lake Garda gets cold and even has the occasional snowfall. Then, there is the terrain – steep, limestone slopes that require terraces for almost any human endeavor just to keep everything from rolling off into the lake.
Nonetheless, lemons have been cultivated here since 1000 AD, and after the near-extinction of the practice, the limonaia (lemon houses) are once again flourishing. I first saw what turned out to be the limonaia from the Lake Garda ferry… dozens and dozens of tall, pale pillars rising from the hillsides like ancient ruins. My hotel, the Bella Riva in Gardone Riviera, was able to arrange for me to visit one of them.
I visited with Giuseppe Gandossi, owner of “La Malora”, a traditional limonaia in Gargnano, parts of which are 500 years old. He welcomes visitors by appointment for no charge because, as he says, it’s a “bella storia” (beautiful story) that he wants to share. And despite the fact that he speaks no English, and my Italian is probably more rudimentary than that of his grandchildren, he conveys the history and the technique and the flavor of the lemon houses of Lake Garda.
(Following is a combination of information from Giuseppe and further research on my part to make sure I understood him properly.)
A limonaia is an ancient form of hothouse or conservatory… the design is ingenious, says Giuseppe, and still functions to make the impossible, possible. First, the steep hillsides are terraced to create flat, narrow plots, bordered by sun-catching stone on three sides. La Malora is a small holding, he tells me, some of the larger, more commercial ones are huge. But this is enough for him, just three terraces with perhaps a half dozen trees on each terrace. (Giuseppe’s house, by the way, is built into one end of the terraces, so it cascades down the hillside in the same steep pattern of multiple stories.)
(His home is the building on the left; the workshed is the building on the right; the limonaia are between)
A zigzag irrigation system diverts water from a nearby stream onto the series of terraces. The stone aquaduct can be blocked at various points to send water through a wooden trough directly where needed by the trees.
Stone pillars are built up to 10 meters high (to match the height difference between the terraces) within the stone walls at the back and sides of each terrace. The trees are planted within a plot bounded by the pillars, and the pillars connected by wooden supports to the stone walls. The pillars and walls form the skeleton that holds the wooden planks that provide the “greenhouse” effect, sheltering the trees from the winter weather.
A simple clay pot at the ends of each terrace functions as an ancient thermometer, and when the small amount of water at the bottom of the pot freezes (usually in November), it’s time to enclose the lemon trees.
It’s a lot of work, Giuseppe says, and his son or other family members usually help. The system of numbering the appropriate boards used is also an ancient adaptation that he admires, as each board has a specific location. Some of the boards he uses are a hundred years old (if I understood him correctly, anyway) and are housed in a multi-story shed that bookend the terraces with his home.
This is clearly a labor of love for Giuseppe, who admires and preserves all the traditions. He showed me an old metal spigot and raved about the “perfect design” — it did its job, but was also a thing of beauty with clean and elegant lines. He also has recreated the ancient tools used to harvest the fruit, including baskets made from skin and leather.
Another hand-crafted tool that he is recreating is for making olive oil. This property was originally an olive mill, and there are still olive trees on the grounds. Giuseppe is weaving a type of fiber disk used in the cold pressing, so I assume he makes his own olive oil. (He said the weaving process takes patience, but he enjoys it.) That original grinding wheel and the stone used for pressing are still on the property, and the old water wheel used to provide power still turns.
After climbing up through the terraces, he invites me into his house, where he pours us a taste of limoncino (apparently the Northern Italian version of limoncello). And it’s really good (even at 11 am)! He says it’s pure lemon (plus simple syrup), harvested from green fruit for a stronger taste. Commercial limoncino, he says, isn’t necessarily all fruit. This more natural product is better for your health, he says.
He also offers a non-alcoholic Sambuco, which surprises me. I thought he was talking about Sambuca, the anise-flavored liqueur,
which I really dislike. Imagine my delight when I get a refreshing drink made of elderflower syrup mixed with water and served with ice cubes of frozen lemon juice.
Unfortunately, his inamorata has called to let him know two more visitors are on their way, so my tour is over. But of course, I buy some limoncino before I go (and he very sweetly makes sure I know I can’t take it on the plane with me). I walk out past a couple about to start their visit, and I’m rather jealous, as I could easily repeat the experience.
Despite our language differences, he and I had spoken of struggle, tradition, history, even the state of the world (his daughter had to move to northern Europe to find work). He’s been doing this for 15 years, after moving to the area to be near his inamorata, whose family is from here. He’s clearly fallen in love, not only with the lucky lady, but the history, culture and traditions of this area. But as much as Giuseppe reveres tradition, he’s not bound by it… his Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/pages/Limonaia-LA-Malora-Gargnano-Lago-di-Garda/529743197081150
(A hand-made pony swing for his grandchildren)