“These trees need experience,” Fabio Gandossi tells me. “They need people who know how to grow lemons.” Fabio and his father, Giuseppe, are those people. They tend to Limonaia La Malora, an ancient citrus grove on the serene western shores of Lake Garda. “In the 16th century, we had 400 lemon houses in Gargnano — it was good business,” he adds. But these days, this limonaia is the last of its kind in this tiny town on the once-thriving Lemon Riviera.
Fabio walks me through the grove, which is built into terraced slopes that edge up the mountain. From the lower levels, I catch glimpses of Gargnano — cypress and palm trees erupting between pastel houses. Two towers reach into the hazy morning — San Franceso’s modest turret and the slim campanile of San Martino — and shaggy limestone mountains rise beyond. We’re on the edge of the vast, fabled lake, where boats sit listless on its waters and skeletons of defunct lemon houses dot the hillsides.
“This area is very well connected to Austria and Germany, so it was a good location to exchange lemons,” Fabio explains, looking north. Although lemons have grown here since the 13th century, the market slumped in the 1900s. “Competition from the south following reunification, the evolution of transportation, tree sickness and the discovery of how to reproduce citric acid inside laboratories all contributed to the decline in lemon houses here.”
But none of that put Giuseppe off from buying an abandoned farm, and nurturing the few surviving trees using traditional cultivation methods — everything here, from irrigation to heat regulation, is an ancient practice. Fabio draws my attention to numerous ceramic pots propped up next to trees. “We put water in here, and when it ices, we understand it’s too cold for the lemon, so we light fires to warm the trees,” he explains.
When the first November frosts appear, father and son cover the entire terraced grove with timber beams, glass panels and grasses — a laborious 10-day process that converts it into a giant greenhouse. The limonaie in this area are characterised by these unique latticed structures that make cultivation possible at the most northerly latitude where these citrus fruits grow. “It was necessary to have a property where lemons could grow in open air during summer, and be covered in the winter,” states Fabio.
It’s early autumn, and the whole edifice of colonnades and timber beams looks like a scaffolding support structure — but it’s picturesque as well as practical. White stone walls are slung with vines and bursts of bougainvillea — striking tones amid the taupe and terracotta rooftops. Leaves provide camouflage for green lemons, while far above ripe-and-ready yellow specimens dangle like festoon lights.
A little stream flanking the property runs through the lush greenery and spins an old steel mill. Sweet jujube dates and capers grow wild here. “They look awful when they die,” Fabio says of a caper bush. “But it’s the moment of life because they produce new seeds.”
We head back towards the house, past a wall hung with old tools and leather bags waiting for lemons to fill their darkened cavities. Inside, a white-haired Giuseppe dressed in blue is sitting at a wooden table, peeling green lemons. “When you cut branches at this time of year, there are some little green lemons, which are not ready,” Giuseppe explains, as he places the peeled citrus in a bowl, letting thin rinds collect in piles before him. “Instead of throwing them away, we make green limoncello.”
As I sit down, he pours us each a shot of the liqueur from an unmarked bottle. Made with only water, sugar, grain alcohol and lemon zest, it takes 24 lemons to make one litre of this stuff, Giuseppe explains, adding that you won’t find green limoncello outside Gargnano. He smiles, and nods at me to try the chartreuse-coloured liquid. It’s tangy, intense, but also subtly sweet — a zesty answer to the saccharine varieties sipped by the crowds along the Amalfi Coast.
But it’s more than that, too — it’s a nod to a tradition of intimate cultivation that’s been lost with modern techniques. It’s a method that — in this case — produces a superior product. After all, these trees need people who know how to grow lemons. And I’m glad they have Fabio and Giuseppe to tend to them.