When we think of Italian lemons, we often associate them with the Amalfi Coast and Sicily, when in fact the lemon trade began from Italy’s largest lake, Lake Garda, back in the 14th century. Due to the hilly landscape of the region, lemons were grown in specific lemon houses on the sides of the mountainous terrain.
It is nearly impossible to grow lemons anywhere north of Naples, and it was the specific microclimate of the lake that allowed the cultivation of lemons, oranges, capers and olives. Even if the winters are reasonably mild, they are still colder than the southern parts of Italy, and that is where the structure of the lemon houses became handy.
History of lemon houses
Lemon cultivation on Lake Garda dates back to the 13th-century Franciscan convent of Gargnano. It was the Franciscan friars who understood the microclimate of the area and introduced lemons and other fruits to Limone sul Garda, Gardone Riviera, Toscolano Moderno, Tignale, and of course, Gargnano.
Many local fishermen and boatmen became gardeners to all these fruits. Lemon houses, also known as limonaie, were carved out of the rocky mountain slopes, creating several levels of platforms, or terraces, as they were often called. The large stone walls and trees offered natural shelter, although wooden pillars were also used on all sides to help to protect the crops during the winter months, usually from mid-November.
Wooden pillars supported the structure that protected the lemons from the frost. The gardeners used sheets, wood and glass for cover, creating seasonal greenhouses. If the temperature dropped too low, fires were lit inside the greenhouse. Come spring and warmer weather, the glass panels and extra wooden beams were removed until next winter.
The lemon trees were also supported using wooden beams as scaffolding. This allowed them to grow taller, which in turn meant more lemons. The trees would reach a maximum height of eight metres.
Water was brought to the trees simply by gravity. The irrigation system consisted of canals carved in limestone. The gardener then diverted the water flow to the chosen tree using their preferred method, and sandbags were used to block the water flow. This way the water was forced to overflow the canal and then directed to the tree via a portable wooden gutter. Twigs were then positioned at the lower end of the gutter to ensure gentle dispersion of the water at the base of the tree.
Most terrace levels would have their own small storage house where the gardener would keep various tools to avoid having to drag them up and down the house.
Rise and fall
In the 1500s Lake Garda’s western shore was covered with lemon houses, with over 50 varieties of citrus. These lemon houses became very important for the survival of the local populations. With the help of the Bettoni family, whose magnificent (yet slowly decaying) villa can be found in Gargnano, the cultivation and sale of lemons really began to boost the local economy.
The villa was built by the sixteen sons of Gian Domenico Bettoni (1663–1748), who was the founder of the lemon enterprise that sold throughout Europe and all the way to Russia.
The Garda lemons were relished for their medicinal qualities, the acidity and the aromatic fragrance of their juice and peel, and their ‘freshness that lasts longer than any other’. Garda lemons had shiny, thin peel, which also made them more desirable. As a result, prices increased. Garda lemons ended up costing two to three times more than lemons from other areas of Italy.
After the unification of Italy and at the turn of the 20th century, many lemon houses were abandoned. Several citrus fruits were hit by a deadly disease known as Gommosi, cutting down the harvest massively. The growth of lemon cultivation in the southern parts of Italy also had a negative impact on the lemon houses around Garda. In the south you didn’t need the specific lemon house structure to grow lemons, making production much cheaper. The price of lemons dropped. Bettoni’s commercial lemons went from 5.77 lire for 100 in 1892 to 2.31 lire in 1897 and 1.83 lire in 1908.
Today, only a few ancient lemon houses remain in the area. Their production is small and mainly sold locally.
As early as the 16th century, Agostino Gallo established several rules and recommendations for growing lemons. Each tree in the lemon house had an available area of between 16 and 20 square metres. The number of plots determined the size of a garden. Gallo recommended that the plants have rich gravel-free soil and that fertiliser be used when the lemon house was still uncovered. Besides fertilising, the soil had to be weeded and hoed, and the trees had to be pruned and irrigated.
The lemons were picked by hand using a special ladder or three-legged stools. The pickers would carry a leather sack which they filled with the lemons. The main harvest is in May and June, although lemons picked in June and July tend to be smoother and rounder. Minor quantities can also be picked between August and October.
During the main harvest one tree produces around 500 to 600 lemons.
Agostino Gallo also encouraged people to make money using other parts of the plant. For example, lemon blossoms can be eaten in salads, preserved in vinegar or used in scented waters. The rare citron, cedro di Salò, was used to make the prized citron water in the second half of the 18th century.
Interestingly, it wasn’t until the 19th century that lemons were cultivated for use in liqueurs.
Visiting a lemon house
If you ever find yourself in Lake Garda, I recommend visiting the Limonaia La Malora in Gargnano. Considering that parts of Lake Garda can be fairly touristy, I was positively surprised when we got the jam-packed ferry from Salò and were the only ones getting off at Gargnano.
The limonaia visit was intersting, and the views were beautiful. Take a self-guide brochure at the entrance and tour around the site at your own pace. At the end of the tour, you will end up in the tasting area, where you are greeted by the (very friendly) owner of the lemon house. He will talk you through the wide array of products from limoncellos to caper jams. And of course, you can sample anything you like.
I went home with a bottle of limoncello made from green lemons. I would also recommend trying the liqueur made from capers.
Entrance costs €5 per person and is payable at the end.