Lemons, probably the most important fruit for European and Middle Eastern Cuisines. Lemons originated in Northern India and became widely cultivated in the Mediterranean thanks to the Arabs.The crusaders brought back lemons from the Holy Land to Northern Europe at the end of the 12th Century. This was the first time they were eaten in Europe.Great courtyards all over Spain during the time of the Moors were filled with Lemon and Orange trees. Such gardens still exist. The Alhambra in Granada for example.Lemon trees like plenty of water, but not a lot of rain. The reason is thought to be, because it evolved in forests where they lived in the shade of bigger trees, so that very little water fell on the lemons.
These were modelled on the Orangeries of France, popular at the time. (1500’s) Lake Garda is the most northern growing area for lemons in Europe. The lemons were grown around this deep and vast lake,and the surrounding mountains screened off the cold air from the Alps. Because of it’s depth the lake had a warming influence. However it was still too cold for the lemons. So the growers created high walls which then were covered in from November onwards. Glass panels let in light and often stoves or fires were lit on the coldest nights. In this way the trees were kept alive in the winter and in the spring the lemon houses were re opened.The fruit was sold throughout Northern Italy, Austria and Germany.Jane Grigson in her ” Fruit Book” speaks of
“sitting out of doors at Limone on Lake Garda, drinking…….a first cold Limone Spremuta, squeezed from lemons grown around the village, so improbably near the chill and snow of the Alps.”
D.H. Lawrence writes of the lemons of Lake Garda in “Twilight in Italy”
The greatest contribution of lemons to humans, are it’s health properties. Vitamin C. The lack of it causes scurvy, a plague for sailors through the centuries. Vasco da Gama was the first to write of an outbreak of scurvy at sea, after months of no fresh fruit or vegetables .Often after the very long voyages of discovery, ships arrived back in their home ports, (sometimes) with a skeleton crew, many lost through scurvy.
The British were the first to take steps to carry anti scurvy provisions for sailors. Ships captains were ordered to carry enough lemons for sailors to receive a daily dose of juice after 5/6 weeks at sea.
In cooking lemons provide pectin, so important in the making of Jams and Jellies.Also the zest is highly valued as it contains essential oils and so not only flavours but perfumes.
A short collection of stories by Elizabeth David, published by Penguin to mark the 60th anniversary is called “I’ll be with you in the squeezing of a lemon” a quote from Oliver Goldsmith’s play “She stoops to conquer”.
So what is your favourite lemon squeezer? Here are a few I have on my shelves.
“Three good things on a plate.”
500g floury potatoes, peeled and cubed, 1 garlic clove, peeled; 100ml extra virgin olive oil. Finely grated zest and juice of 1-2 Lemons.
Put the potatoes and whole garlic in a pan, cover with water add salt. Boil, then lower heat and simmer till tender 15-20 mins.Drain and reserve the cooking water, allow to steam dry in the colander for 5 mins.Pass the potatoes and soft garlic clove through a potoe ricer or mouli.Use a wooden spoon to combine the mash withe extra virgin olive oil and some salt and pepper, then add the juice of 1 lemon. Taste and add more lemon juice if you like. add the zest. Add some of the cooking water to give a loose , creamy consistency.
I have served it with steamed cod fillet and buttered spinach.
100g butter very soft. 175g caster sugar, finely grated zest of 2 lemons and juice of 3. 4 eggs seperated, ( must watch this) 50g plain flour, 500ml milk.
I make these in up to 8 small ramekins, but original recipe is for one large 2 litre ovenproof dish.
In a food processor cream the butter with the sugar until it is white and fluffy. May need to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the lemon juice and zest. The mixture may curdle at this point, but it will ok. Add the eggs yolks one at a time. Then slowly add the flour and the milk alternatingly. You should now have a batter. In a clean bowl, whisk the egg whites till they reach peaks, then fold gently into the mixture. Pour this mix into either buttered ramekins or large buttered oven proof dish, then cook in a roasting dish with hotwater coming halfway up the sides.Bake at 180°c or gas mark4 for 25 mins for ramekins or 45 minutes for large dish. The sponge will have risen and it will be golden brown.
Another interesting use of lemons was discovered by Cassanova in the 18th century. What a man!
Original recipe for lemon pudding from Margaret Costa. Other references Alan Davidson, and Margaret Visser, “Much depends on dinner”.