Zest for life
Dec. 2011/Jan. 2012 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Trina Wood
Photos by Kim Riddle
Ventura County couple celebrates Italian ways 'California style'
More online: Recipes
James Carling and wife Manuela Zaretti-Carling use Eureka and Lisbon lemons from Petty Ranch in Ventura County to create their Ventura Limoncello.
You could say that James Carling's career change all started with a potted lemon tree on his deck. His mother-in-law, a native of Italy, spotted the ripening fruit and said, "Oh, the lemons are ready. We need to make limoncello!"
Even as an Italian-American, Carling wasn't familiar with the lemon liqueur popular in the home country of his wife, Manuela Zaretti-Carling. So he watched his wife and mother-in-law prepare a batch of limoncello following a recipe handed down from Manuela's nonna, or grandmother. Weeks passed before they could open the bottle, but Carling said it was well worth the wait.
"It was unlike any liqueur I had ever tasted," he said. "The freshness of the lemon and the light sweetness on my palate was amazing. I immediately wanted another sip."
Chris Sayer, a fifth-generation farmer who runs Petty Ranch, selects lemons at their peak.
James and Manuela started making batches of limoncello originale and crema (made with whole milk) and keeping them on hand to serve when they entertained. Their friends fell in love with the liqueurs, to the point where the couple was expected to bring a bottle to dinner parties everywhere. When Carling—then an executive in the consumer-catalog industry—decided it was time for a career change, he thought, why not start a family business making limoncello?
Getting his wife to buy into the idea took some time and a bit of persuasion, he said, but in late 2007, they founded the Ventura Limoncello Co., using the recipe from Nonna and tree-ripened fruit from local growers.
Zaretti-Carling hand-peels the fruit and mixes the peels with grain alcohol and sugar water.
"We're called Ventura Limoncello for a reason," Carling said. "We wanted to identify with the beautiful citrus grown here in Ventura County and made a conscious decision to only work with fruit growers here in the county."
California produces 87 percent of the lemons grown in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Ventura County is the largest lemon-producing county in the state, providing half of those lemons.
"The coastal influence that you get here in the Ventura and Oxnard area really is just an ideal climate for lemons because the winters are fairly temperate and the summers are warm," said Chris Sayer, a fifth-generation farmer who runs Petty Ranch on 57 acres that have been family-farmed since the 1870s. "That allows the trees to really thrive and set fruit year-round."
Sayer is known for growing limited amounts of specialty crops such as lemons, avocados, blood oranges and figs, and picking them at their peak for local consumers. Eureka and Lisbon lemons from the Petty Ranch became the first to be used in Ventura Limoncello. Carling also relies on supplies from Limoneira, a leading producer of avocados, lemons, oranges and other specialty crops.
"It's been really great working with Chris," Carling said. "He picks the lemons to our specifications for a particular size, color and firmness."
Sayer said that lemons are often picked green and develop their full color while in storage because the typical consumer expects them to be lemon-flavored and sour. Allowing lemons to fully ripen on the tree allows the fruit to develop much more oil and sugar in the peel.
"When you let the lemons stay on the tree until they are fully ripe, the flavor is a lot more complex," Sayer said. "For something like Ventura Limoncello, that really makes all the difference."
Exacting attention to detail is a hallmark of Ventura Limoncello, from the initial selection of lemons, to the way they are peeled, to bottling only the batches that pass Manuela's taste test.
"And every time we make a batch of limoncello in our facility, it always gets my mom's, my Nonna Maria's and God's blessing," Manuela said.
The resulting liqueur is bottled after four to six weeks.
Staying true to the Old World standards means hand peeling thousands of lemons a week, and that task falls to Manuela and her mother, Rossana Biancucci-Zaretti. At peak production times, Manuela said her hands hurt almost too much to hold her cell phone. Only the top layer of peel is used for limoncello as that is where the fruit oils are concentrated, so the peeling must be done to avoid any of the white pith that will make the liqueur bitter.
Having access to lemons year-round in Ventura County is a blessing, Manuela said, but they also have to be conscious of how seasonal changes affect the fruit.
"With a sudden increase in heat at times during the summer, the lemons can ripen very quickly and not produce the same taste," she said. The fruit may be plump and yellow, but the lemon is drier, without as many oils in the peel that are released during the infusion process. So every month, the limoncello batches will be slightly different, although Manuela said the average consumer won't be able to notice the difference. Just like wine, you don't want to drink limoncello immediately. You want to give it a chance to sit for about three to six months after bottling.
Chef Jason Collis
When they aren't elbows deep in lemons, the Carlings partner with local chefs who focus on highlighting the bountiful produce of Ventura County. Chef Jason Collis, who does catering and special events for Limoneira Ranch, uses Ventura Limoncello in sauces, glazes, dressings and one of his favorites—lemon bars.
"There are so many different things you can do with it," said Collis, who also features Ventura-grown avocados, herbs, tomatoes, pumpkins, spring mix and figs in his creations. "You can flambé with it, add it to your vegetables for a little bit of a lemon kick or substitute it for lemon juice in some cooking applications."
Producing Ventura Limoncello is a labor of love, and the passion that the Carlings infuse into the liqueur has already received recognition at the renowned San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Shortly after bottling their first batch in 2008, James entered their Ventura Limoncello Originale into the annual competition, hoping for an honorable mention. To their surprise, the liqueur took home a Gold Medal, beating the other brands in the competition—all from Italy.
In May 2011, the Carlings launched a new product—Ventura Orangecello Blood Orange—using blood oranges from the Petty Ranch as well as from the Gold family ranch in Somis. The orangecello took Double Gold Best in Class at the same competition, beating out their Limoncello Originale, Grand Marnier's 150th anniversary edition and other heavy hitters in the fruit liqueur category.
Every time Ventura Limoncello has received any form of recognition, Manuela said her mother cries and exclaims, "See, Mom's prayers do work."
Limoncello is a lemon liqueur produced mainly in Southern Italy and often served chilled as an after-dinner drink to aid digestion. In recent years, limoncello has gained popularity in other parts of the world and is increasingly used in cocktails and desserts.
The Old World style of making limoncello uses lemon skin from firm, smooth fruit with thick peels and a lot of oil. The zest is combined with grain alcohol and simple syrup and allowed to sit for several weeks to develop a strong lemon flavor without the sourness or bitterness of lemon juice. Patience is a key ingredient!
Ventura County chef Jason Collis uses as many locally grown products as possible in his creations—including Ventura Limoncello. Here are two of his favorites, along with Manuela Zaretti-Carling's recipe for traditional Italian sponge cake.