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 in his 10,000 square metre garden.
“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, which produce an impressive 2,500kg of lemons per year.
The only days he doesn’t work are when it rains, he proudly tells me. 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 as an agriturismo - a working farm where guests are literally granted a taste of local life, with many home-grown products served at the dinner table.
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 is now using the Nunziatas’ Il Giardino di Vigliano property in its ‘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 headspin, the thought of lemons served at breakfast (in jams), lunch (zested on pizzas) and dinner (slices served raw, dusted with sugar, as a dessert) seems very appealing. This is one workplace I wouldn’t mind sticking around for a few days.
Owned by the Nunziato 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 produces 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, revealing that while Peppino’s preserve is the garden, she very much rules the kitchen.
Once the sun has seeped into the still Gulf of Naples, leaving an afterglow of pink streaks across the horizon, 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, and conclude that I could happily keep going for some time.
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. This area certainly isn’t short of money - or tourists. Finally we reach Positano, where pastel-coloured houses crowd the cliff face like pushy spectators jostling for a front row view of the water.
The gateway to Italy’s enchanting southern coastlines, Naples - quite unfairly - has been tarnished with a reputation for being dirty, rundown and dangerous. But for me, the former Spanish-ruled kingdom is the beating heart of Italy.
Giambelli coffee machines grind into action as baristas serve viscous, explosive strength espressos to loud, boisterous Neapolitans - no doubt providing rocket fuel for their wild gesticulations.
I walk along Spaccanapoli, the street which famously splits Naples in two.
As I sit down for another pizza, an eccentric performer turns up on a customised Tim Burton-esque scooter to entertain diners. He’s the epitome of Naples’ offbeat, humorous charm.
I remember Ida’s advice and order my shot of limoncello chilled but not frozen. Despite my self-consciousness, sunburned shoulders and fragmented Italian, I’m confident I might just have passed for being a local.