Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Lemon Paradiso

I just love lemons, whether sharp and tangy or sweet and subtle, fresh or preserved.

I can trace the moment back to the morning I woke up in a lemon orchard.  Isn't it always the case that there is a story or an environment to why you fall for something? 

My sister and I had backpacks on our backs.  We were in our early 20s and had arrived in clenching heat and humidity in Naples as the temperature climbed 39C - they were having a heatwave.  The central station is not somewhere you want to have to navigate in a foreign language when you are drawn and tired.  I had assured her that I had (clumsily and last minute) booked a cheap B&B in Sorrento on the amalfi coast where we were headed, for the first night - we just had to get there.   So we dashed, just in time, for the last afternoon train, like snails travelling with our homes on our backs but leaping like gazelles - weaving in between the human traffic and flinging apologetically.  The train to the coast was slow and ran past brave names such as Herculaneum and Pompeii, stealing our minds far, far away.

Evening had begun to draw in by the time we arrived, but we were relieved just to see the sea and be amongst a calmer crowd, with the rest of the vacationers, sejourners and settle into the local mediterranean ease.  Already, we were imagining the nice meal with a glass of wine, that awaited us at one of the attractive bistros facing the sea, toasting in it's warm thermal streams.  But arriving at the B&B, the Italian for no reservation was very clear, they had no record of our email and the manager was not around to discuss this, as the assistant flittered at the whole confusion.  Outside, on the path, we met with an equally perturbed young  American couple who received the same message concerning their reservation.  As is common between travellers, there was the exchange of backstory; they were serving as nurses in a Middle East warzone, having completed their term they were on their return to the states and decided to spend a few days in Italy in transit.  Full of the energy of bonding with fellow travellers, we set out as a group along the town's main thoroughfare, taking it in turns to enquire about vacancies.  It was a holiday town, so the main street was alive and singing like a nightingale, we remained optimistic.  They lugged awkward suitcases on wheels over tricky cobblestones, we felt fortunate for our nifty backpacks and felt nimble in comparison.  The nightingale sung on into the night, and realising that it was June, the height of the tourist throng, all hotels that were within our similar budgets, had the same thing to say - no vacancies.  Arriving at the hotel at the very end of the thoroughfare, having incrementally raised our budgets, we enquired with a last ditch bid.  The owner was very sorry but he was fully booked and knew with honesty that most if not all of the hotels in town would be, it was peak season.

Looking to our left, there was no more road.  We crossed the road from the hotel where there was a small patch of lawn and sat, resting our tired bones.  It was almost 11 at night, the town was still lively, and none of us had eaten.  So two of us went to buy a loaf of bread and a bit of ham.  As we split the small loaf, we discussed resorting to the lawn for the night, and eyed the park bench as a possibility.  A reminder of our wide-eyed C S lewis child-selves, pitching sheets into tents as our castles and pushing sofas together to make ships across the carpet sea.  But ultimately it wasn't so bad, it was warm and certainly safe enough, as we sat cross legged chatting.  We had all fixed reliable accomodation for the rest of our stay afterall, and we were certainly young and hardy enough to withstand one evening outdoors at the mediteranean seaside.

We saw the hotel manager walk towards us, thinking that he would labour us for being unsightly, communing on the lawn outside his property for the night.  Which I am sure was partially his motivation, and perhaps alittle out of pity for what must have seemed like a group of younglings without a bed for the night and his generosity of spirit - he had called around hotels for us to enquire vacancies.  His friend's hotel had rooms available, but it was up the cliffside, they were happy to accept our budget, would we take it?  There was a local minibus that was still running and hopping through town that could take us up there.  Would we take it - so much for young and hardy, we leapt at it, basking in our change of fortune and the prospect of a comfortable bed.

As the bus climbed the late night, along the bumpy unfinished cliff road, with a sheer drop to the deep Tyrrenhian.  We finally arrived and all bundled into the hotel, and found our rooms.  We were still hungry and though it was the dead of night, I mustered my Italian and enquired after food - the receptionist said the kitchen was closed.  But pleading with our story of a long day of travel, and having now been joined by our American friends on the same nocturnal hunt for food, they generously gave in and rustled up the mediteranean basic which was more than we could wish for; layered slices of plump tomatoes and phat mozarella, overlaid with fluffy basil tedrils and a lazy zig zag of olive oil with warm hunks of bread.  We sat in their empty restaurant like a depiction by Edward Hooper, with panoramic windows out, but only seeing the black blue night and our reflections in the glass, as we wearily ate.  We said good night and slept our stomachs full, slumbering fast.

The morning sun shone bright through the light cotton drapes as we rose, re-energised with a spring in our step and eagerly bounded down the stairs to breakfast.  The expression "the difference is day and night" could not have been more true.  As we crossed the breakfast room out to a table on the terrace, the cliffside revealed more and more of itself to us, as we disovered that we were in the midst and surrounded by the most yellow-resplendant and bountiful lemon orchard that climbed the cliff face down to the sparkling waters.  The oils in their peel, sublimated by the sun, filling the air with its zest.  A lemon Paradiso.  That morning could not have felt more perfect, the hotel could not have been more perfect as we caught a glimpse of our American friends and smiled widely with good fortune.

On the Amalfi Coast - you should definitely visit Sorrento, Amalfi, Ravelo and Positano - all well linked by a jaw dropping cliffside route.

You've made it this far so here's a perfect lemon reminder:

Insalata di Polipi: Italian octopus salad - antipasto.


  • 200g Jar of Italian preserved octopus -ideally small octopus and ready to eat
  • Olive oil for dressing
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • large handful parsley, minced
  • half a lemon
  • tomatoes
  • half onion
  • watercress
  • Salt & freshly ground pepper


Drain and dice the octopus into a bowl
Season them with the minced parsley, salt and pepper to taste, abundant olive oil and squeeze in fresh lemon.
Add to this watercress, quartered plump tomoatoes, thinly sliced onion and toss together with sufficient olive oil and fresh lemon to your taste and serve.

Have you read E M Forster recently?  A room with a view.


  1. Mmmm, I love octopus! Whenever we order calamari in a restaurant, my husband makes me eat the little octopi because they freak him out.

  2. I love this story. I am a travel junkie and little tales like this make me smile.

  3. Stories like this are just for you and I and travellers like us : )

  4. What a beautiful post, I felt like I was right there with you.

  5. The cake looks delish! I'll be over with coffee in a few minutes! HA!

  6. Octopus salad looks amazing! And that cake! I agree, lemon is just the best--Love when you get it in restaurants to clean your hands--or warm, lemon scented hand-towels. That's just the best.