When life gives you lemons (and lots of them at that) dad would say “now don’t waste them”. Although this statement would not remain exclusive for lemons, his words of wisdom have been echoing in my mind recently.
Lemon trees, the internet tells me, “prefer a full sun position”, which may account for the fact that so many are flourishing here in the outback desert. Down the road (110km away, which is considered down the road here) in Menindee, citrus fruits are being grown for people all over Australia, and I think a similar amount are being grown on the vacant block next door. Hence dad’s words are on repeat in my mind, not only because there are lots of them, but (arguably more importantly), they’re free! So let’s give these fruit a little more attention than we give them when they garnish a seafood platter.
Lemons originated in Asia, however by biblical times they were used all over the Middle East and Mediterranean Europe. They have since travelled around the globe as new lands were explored. In fact, it was lemons that saved many of these explorers from death, and allowed exploration to successfully occur- some would say this humble fruit has shaped the world we live in today!
See, lemons (like other citrus fruits, and fruit and vegetables in general) are high in Vitamin C. Vitamin C is used for many processes in the body, including making collagen (the protein in our skin, ligaments and other body tissues). Hundreds of years ago, during sea voyages, fruit was a scarcity as it wouldn’t keep for long. Hence many explorers developed scurvy (Vitamin C deficiency) whereby a lack of collagen synthesis would result in wounds being formed, teeth falling out, nerves being damaged, and death would eventuate. See, dietitians do have a point when they tell you to eat your fruit and veg! Back to the explorers. One discovered that by feeding his sailors oranges and lemons, they could avoid this nasty fate, no doubt making the life of seamen significantly more pleasant.
Most fruits would be content having one good news story to their name, but not lemons. They’ve stolen the spotlight in all sorts of ways- not bad for one of the only fruits many of us struggle to chomp into (not the Aboriginals out here though- cut one up, sprinkle it with some salt, and voila- they have a nutritious snack!). Vitamin C also acts as an antioxidant. This prevents chemical reactions from occurring, such as some foods turning brown- which is why a squeeze of lemon juice in guacamole or on a fruit salad will keep it fresher for longer. The acidity of a lemon will also denature proteins in meat and fish, causing it the meat to become tender and fish to be considered ‘cooked’. And finally, it features in countless meals, drinks, sweets and condiment recipes from across the globe. Let’s explore a few...
“When it was bean season, we ate beans every day. When it was tomato season, we ate tomatoes every day”. Anyone who knows my nonna will know this quote. Luckily in the Middle East preserved lemons were developed to ensure people were not stuck eating lemons every day during lemon season. They are traditionally pickled in salt and their own juice (with or without the skin), spices are added and they are used in main meal dishes, often with chicken. Don’t be caught out- you need at least a good month or two to allow the lemons to soften and develop a sweet taste, so plan ahead if you want to use these in your next dish!
Across the Mediterranean Sea the British had a similar tactic of preserving lemons so they were available year-round. Lemon curd or lemon butter uses a base of butter, eggs, and sugar to create a lovely spread for scones or bread, or a filling for cakes, pies or pastries- all those lovely treats the British are known for. The tartness of the lemon, with the sweetness of the sugar and the creaminess of the butter creates a party in your mouth that humans have evolved to desire- great for the hunting days when we needed all the energy we could get, not as handy now when the most exercise many of us get is in our fingers at the computer.
Now finally, the Italians (one day I will learn that the world of food does not centre around this boot-shaped piece of land). Bear with me, this isn’t any dish. Illegal alcohol. Shall I continue?
Throughout my childhood dad wouldn’t shy from offering me offer me a sip of his vino, beer or liqueurs. A personal favorite was one that would be brewing every now and then in the darkest, coolest place in the house: limoncello. Officially Italy’s second most loved liqueur, it is traditional to the south (warm weather= many lemon trees= not dissimilar to the Aussie outback so it seems) made simply by soaking lemon peels in pure alcohol for weeks, then adding a sugar syrup. Left in the freezer, it will only ever partially freeze due to the alcohol content, becoming a granita without any of the hard work. A slight problem arises in that pure alcohol is technically banned in Australia, meaning that Italo-Australians source pure alcohol from their aunt’s cousin’s inlaw’s mother, and that is of no use to anyone who doesn’t have an Italian aunt’s cousin’s inlaw’s mother. The internet assures me that vodka will do the same, so let’s find out!