I went to Italy a couple of summers ago, and what I wouldn’t give to be back there now. The G man and I rented an apartment from a friend so we had all our own space, our own kitchen and our own massive balcony, on which we spent most of our time. In the morning you could catch just the right amount if sun as you ate fresh peaches for breakfast. In the evening, you could sit out and watch the resident bats flutter around in the twilight, them eating moths and you eating heaped bowls of pasta with rocket and pecorino. At night, you could play cards and sip wine, right out in the fresh air. It was a wonderful holiday.
While we were in Italy, we drank a lot of wine, as you might expect, and also truly discovered the wonders of the digestif. We’d been familiar with the concept, sure, but neither of us has ever been a frequenter of establishments where an aperitif or digestif is offered, a pint of Tennents usually being thought of as good enough to fill those roles. In fairness, when dinner us a packet of cheese and onion crisps torn open on the table to share, you don’t need a digestif.
When we’re on holiday, though, we do visit these nice restaurants and indulge in the finer and fancier ways of dining. We had wine, fresh sea food, after dinner drinks and constitutional walks in the warm night air. It was wonderful. Ever since then, I have toyed with the idea of making my own limoncello. Limoncello is, as you’d expect, a lemon liqueur. It’s sweet, tart and lip tinglingly boozy, and served ice cold in small glasses. To make it properly, you start with pure alcohol – nothing that’s already been flavoured or diluted. Unfortunately, we in the UK can’t be trusted with such; we get ourselves in enough trouble as it is. Not all of us, I hasten to add, but attitudes to drinking and drunkenness here are undeniably different from other parts of the world. So no ethanol for us – except maybe in tiny glass bottles from the chemist, who would probably be suspicious if you asked for two dozen of them.
Given this drawback, I proceeded with a slightly altered version of Tracy Shutterbean’s recipe for limoncello. This makes about a litre:
- 500ml quality vodka
- 5 lemons
- 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 1 1/2 cups water
As the ingredient list is so simple, go for really good quality products. I didn’t buy the most expensive vodka, but I did buy one that I thought would taste ok on its own because that’s really what you’ll end up doing here – drinking almost straight vodka. My choice was Morrisons Taste the Difference, a supermarket own brand but, for my money, a more subtle taste than many more expensive, brand name vodkas. They have no idea I am writing this, and I was in no way compensated for recommending their vodka. I am open to future compensation, if anyone is interested… I also bought supermarket lemons, but if you are fortunate enough to be able to get some big, fat, blazingly yellow fruit then definitely go for it. Get unwaxed ones, too, or the scrubbing part will take ages. Wherever you get them, choose the ones with the best colour and the clearest skin – no black spots or blotches. We all know how the black spot worked out for Billy Bones. Let’s not have a repeat of that situation.
The limoncello is made in three stages. First you scrub and then peel the lemons. Use a sharp vegetable peeler. I now realise that I need a new one – I was only marginally better off using the peeler than my teeth. It took a long while and the resulting peel did not resemble the long, elegant strips that I’d had in my mind’s eye. Put the lemon peel in a big jar, or two smaller jars, and pour over the vodka. Seal it up tight and leave covered up at room temperature. I left mine on the counter, under a teatowel, but in a cupboard would be fine if you have the space. Leave the vodka for two weeks, shaking occasionally if only because shaking stuff on a jar is fun, and we don’t really get the opportunity to do it much as adults. You can see the colour start to build up from the very first day.
After the two weeks are up – or any time thereafter – pour all the vodka and lemon peel into a jug. Then, combine the water and sugar over a low heat until the sugar is dissolved. You have now made simple syrup. The name is pretty appropriate, don’t you think? Add the syrup to the lemony vodka, stir or shake (James Bond might be fussy but I’m not) until well combined, then put in the fridge overnight, or until you have time.
The final step is to strain the lemon peel out of the jug, then pour the finished limoncello through a coffee filter so it’s clear and not cloudy. I rigged up a genius contraption with a coffee filter, metal skewer and teapot.
It didn’t really work. Not every idea can be a winner. In the end, I finally managed to strain the whole lot. I poured it into one empty gin bottle that had been awaiting recycling, three of the sweet IKEA snaps bottles and the remains into a glass jar. Then I poured some of it into a chilled glass and, subsequently, poured it into my face. A tiny bit of pouring at a time for that last step; sipping is a more apt word, really.
This limoncello may not be quite as good as those I had in Italy, but for the currently grey shores of Scotland it’s a triumph. Just take it easy on the stuff. I speak from grim experience…