When life gives you lemons…make limoncello. Elise Rana Hopper meets the woman bringing a traditional taste of Italy to the North East
As backstories go, there’s an undeniable romance to it. It begins with one Ludovici Arnette, a young apprentice plaster craftsman from Naples who followed his padrone to Newcastle in 1863 to work on the great buildings of the booming industrial city.
His sweetheart Isabella came to join him and when in 1865 the pair were married in the city’s first Catholic church on Pilgrim Street, Ludovici treated their guests to his homemade limoncello, made especially for the occasion. Fast forward several generations and Michelle McKenzie, Ludovici’s great-great-granddaughter, is sharing this delicious lemon-infused liqueur with the people of the North East once again.
“The recipe had been handed down through the generations and as a family we’ve always made it,” says Michelle when we meet at her home in West Thirston. “As kids we used to sit around zesting lemons and at Christmas we’d give them as gifts. I kept up the tradition of making it and giving it away – but I was getting so many repeat requests it was starting to get expensive!” Officially launched in February 2014, Ludovici Limoncello has had a resoundingly successful start, moving into newly acquired commercial premises in nearby Felton. The product is now stocked in numerous outlets around the region, including Fenwick and Bin 21, and Michelle is fielding enquiries as word starts to spread.
“I’ve got quite a following of regular customers – often they’ll message me directly on Facebook to let me know where’s out of stock. I’m quite confident in the longevity of the product now – it’s tested itself in the market for first time sales and repeat purchase.”
As her ease with the jargon suggests, although Michelle’s background is in accountancy and finance, she hasn’t found this commercial venture daunting – numerous years spent working for the toiletries manufacturer behind the Sanctuary range have given her a grounding in the business of production and branding, and the transition from kitchen table to bigger batch production. Yet she is keen to maintain the artisan, boutique nature of her limoncello as this is what differentiates it from the mass-produced products that give the liqueur a bad name. “People have heard of it or might have had it on holiday, but will often say they don’t like limoncello,” says Michelle, who delights in converting people at tastings. “All limoncello is not the same,” she says, describing a scale that goes from thick, syrupy-sweet right the way through to rocket fuel.
“Ours is somewhere in the middle – it’s very smooth, it’s got a lot of zestiness and you can really taste the lemon in it.”
The drink is gradually taking on a higher profile, popularised by TV chefs using it in their cooking and taking a little tipple as they go. Though in its native southern Italy the drink is a digestivo, served neat and cold at the end of a meal to cleanse the palate and aid digestion, the fashion in northern Italy is to top it with prosecco to create a longer, spritzer-style drink – a fashion that has spread to certain pockets of the North East, thanks to Michelle.
Though the ingredients are simple – lemons, sugar, alcohol – and the internet abounds with recipes and instructions, Michelle remains tight-lipped about what makes Ludovici limoncello so special. “The exact recipe and process are a family secret you have to sign for to promise you won’t disclose them. Producing a batch takes about eight weeks, but it’s all in the timing of the different stages. It took me a couple of years of wondering why my limoncello didn’t taste as good as my grandfather’s before I got the hang of it.”
Whereas her great-great-grandfather imported his lemons from Sorrento, Michelle sources hers from the southern boot-tip of Calabria where much of Italy’s lemon production is now centred. “It’s a very traditional region,” she says. “It’s like going back to the 1950s – women only go out on their own on a Sunday! But it’s a wonderful place. They love to talk about their food and, like everything else, limoncello is like a competitive sport. Everyone has their own family recipe that they believe to be the best.” On a recent visit to family in the small town of Roccella on the Ionian coast, Michelle found this out for herself when she took a bottle of her limoncello along to a local aperitivo bar.
“It was amazing – people started coming out of the woodwork, running down the street to fetch a bottle of their own for everyone to compare. They were quite impressed with ours though – usually they don’t think that anything Italian can be made at a decent level outside Italy.”
Michelle currently juggles a day job with overseeing the business, though she concedes that might not be an option forever – and the limoncello will win out.
“This is my passion,” she says, “but I would never want to go down the route of mass production – I’ve kept it as a boutique product because that’s what it is. If I ever saw it on a shelf next to a bottle of Buckfast, I’d cry.”
She is thankful to have the support of her family – her parents, sister and nephew regularly get involved, and her 24-year-old niece is particularly keen and helps out at shows. Could she be the next keeper of the secret recipe to sign on the dotted line? “You never know,” says Michelle. “You’ve got to have your eye on the next generation.”