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  1. Wealth
May 31, 2007

Positano Delicious

By Spear's

William Cash travels to the Amalfi Coast and learns why one local limoncello is a clear winner

William Cash travels to the Amalfi Coast and learns why one local limoncello is a clear winner

There can’t be too many things that Mark Birley, the founder of Annabel’s in 1963, and the former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder have in common, but both share a passion for the unique limoncello liqueur produced in Positano by Valentino Exposito at his tiny limoncello factory in the village of Praiano, just a few dusty kilometres from the famous Sirenuse hotel on the Amalfi Coast.

Some years ago, while staying at Le Sirenuse, the owner Franco Sersale suggested after dinner that Mark Birley try a glass of the house limoncello which was made by a local Positano woman known as ‘Mamma Emilia’. This was Valentino’s mother, who had been producing for the hotel a special homemade limoncello. What made the drink so unusual is that instead of the liqueur being a citrine yellow in colour – like most commercial limoncello – the Sirenuse limoncello is paler, having been made with a secret filter that takes out the natural lemon rind colour.

‘The Sirenuse’s clear limoncello is less sweet and more refined than any other I have ever tasted,’ says Mark Birley. ‘After drinking it, there was no going back.’.

Antonio Sersale, who now runs Le Sirenuse, explains that the exclusive liqueur contains less sugar and is more pleasant to taste than any other bottle you can buy along the coast. Apart from the colour, the other difference is that Valentino’s has a stronger 35 per cent proof. ‘Commercial’ limoncello has around a 30 per cent proof. ‘We export our limoncello around the world,’ says Valentino, as he shows me around his factory and shop which he built in the mid-1990s. ‘But we only make the special clear limoncello for the Sersale family.’

Valentino is a minor celebrity himself on the Amalfi coast, having lived around Positano most of his life. His first career was as an actor, starting with his role in the 1968 film Come l’amore, directed by Enzo Muzii, which was set in Positano. After studying in Naples to be a hotelier, he then worked as a steward on the cruise ship Pacific Princess, which was used for filming the famous American TV series, The Love Boat. ‘Whenever we were filming, I used to bring along some bottles of my mother’s limoncello which the stars and crew always loved,’ says Valentino.

For Neopolitans, no lunch or dinner is complete until a bottle of limoncello is produced to drink after coffee. This traditional and ancient liqueur is distilled from the peel of lemons (called ‘Sfusato Amalfitano’ because of its special spindle-shape, exclusive to the region) that are grown all the way along the coast of Amalfi until Sorrento. Lemons were first introduced to the Amalfi region by crusading knights returning from Palestine. As souvenirs from the Holy Land, they brought back citrus fruit trees. The climate and soil of the Amalfi Coast is ideal for growing lemons. Those that are hand-picked – the harvest is from February to September – for making the exclusive Il Gusto della Costa limoncello come from purely organic groves.

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The result is a wholly natural, perfume-like liqueur whose secret recipe has been passed down to Valentino from his mother. Limoncello is best served chilled as a digestif or aperitif. It can also be served with tonic water, making it a refreshing alternative to Campari and soda when in the Italian mood. Neopolitans also mix it with champagne or prosecco, or add it to ice cream and drizzle it over strawberries.

Limoncello is made from a traditional recipe which excludes colouring or artificial ingredients. Without spilling all the family secrets on how to make the clear version, Valentino explains the process. ‘First we wash the lemons by hand, scrubbing them down with warm water,’ he says. ‘Then the lemons are dried and we peel the rind to get long and wide pieces of rind. Then we mix the peel with alcohol and let the limoncello stand. This is then mixed with cold water and sugar to make a syrup. After three days we mix this syrup up with alcohol and Massimo (one of his partners) takes a sample. It is made clear thanks to a special filter system we have invented. Only when Massimo says, ‘Everything is perfect’, do we put it in the bottle.’

Massimo is in charge of the tasting laboratory, which comprises only a little more than a slab of formica and a sink in a small corner of the factory, surrounded by test-tube sample bottles. For Valentino, making the perfect limoncello is not just about carrying on an old family tradition, it is also an exact science that makes his little factory – where lemons grow outside on trees overlooking the sea – a mini-Château d’Yquem of the Amalfi Coast.

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