Sweet scent of fruit in sleepy, sunny Sorrento

A view of the Sorrento coastline, Italy
A view of the Sorrento coastline, Italy

COMMENT: A move in the right direction but still not a win for all

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Using the same care and attention a jeweller might employ to handle precious stones, 68-year-old farmer Peppino Nunziata examines the plump, waxy lemons hanging from wooden pergolas.

‘Lemons are very delicate, so they need a lot of looking after,’ he tells me, after deciding this particular bunch are not yet ready to be picked.

Every day, from 6.30am, Peppino works in his garden, preparing for a marathon seven harvests producing 2,500kg of lemons per year.

The only days he doesn’t work are when it rains. And judging by the blinding sunshine seeping through gaps in the pergolas, that doesn’t happen very often in this part of southern Italy.

Sadly, though, these fragrant, golden gems are no longer the high value commodity they once were; at one time Sorrento lemons were a lucrative export, but today the price is much lower.

In order to keep their business going and preserve an important part of the region’s history, Peppino and his family have been forced to diversify, opening their property up to tourists.

The Italian government set up the concept in the 1980s, to give farmers a secondary source of income, thus maintaining the existence of farms and stopping a mass exodus of people from the countryside.

Tour operator G Adventures are now using the Nunziatas’ Il Giardino di Vigliano property in their ‘Local Living’ programme, giving tourists the opportunity to enjoy grass-roots southern Italian hospitality.

Set in the hills above Sorrento, with views of the island of Capri and a coastline dotted with umbrella pines, it’s hard to imagine that life here is ever hard graft.

As I walk through a shady tunnel of lemon and mandarin trees, the smell of citrus fruits sending me into a euphoric headspi.

Owned by the Nunziata family for four generations, the garden was first planted in the 17th century. Ida, Peppino’s wife, tells me that lemon production in this region was started by the Jesuits in the 16th century, although the fruit was popular as far back as Roman times.

Now most of the lemons the family produce are sold to a limoncello factory in Capri, one of the first places to bottle the syrupy, sweet digestif 20 years ago.

Sat on the terrace of the 15th century stone farmhouse, I’m given instruction on how to properly savour a shot of the drink, which I’ve always (apparently mistakenly) served straight from the freezer.

‘Good limoncello should be cold but not freezing,’ Ida explains with a matriarchal authority.

Once the sun has seeped into the still Gulf of Naples, we head inside for a pizza-making lesson. Using a peel - a long wooden paddle - Ida slips doughy discs into a crackling wood-fired oven.

I wonder how many days I could survive on a diet of pizza and limoncello.

We bake enough bread for a picnic lunch the following day, exploring the other side of the peninsula along Italy’s better known Amalfi coastline.

Following the Walk Of The Gods hiking trail clinging to the cliff tops, we watch expensive yachts cruise the waters and marvel at the exclusive Li Galli islands, once owned by Russian ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev.

Finally we reach Positano, where pastel-coloured houses crowd the cliff face like pushy spectators jostling for a front row view of the water.

But I don’t stay long. I skip a seven Euro glass of Coca Cola in a bar filled with American accents and head back to sleepy Sorrento, hoping Ida has fired up the pizza oven.

G Adventures (0844 272 2040; gadventures.co.uk) offer their seven-day Living Local Sorrento group tour, exploring Pompeii, Capri, the Amalfi coast, Sorrento and Naples, from £999pp. Price includes most meals, accommodation, transport and local guides (flights extra).