Like little fragments of sunshine, lemons bring a pop of colour and brightness to the kitchen, and their tartly tantalising flavour is second to none. A burst of fresh fragrance hits the air the moment you cut into one of these yellow gems. In terms of cooking essentials, we put the Citrus limon right up there alongside staples like salt, pepper and olive oil. And it’s because they are just so versatile; from sweet to savoury and sauces to seafood, there is nothing that doesn’t do well with a kick of lemony acidity.
In fruit years, lemons have a lengthy genealogy yet remain as indispensable today as they were in the days of the ancients. Originally native to Asia, lemons were brought to Italy and Spain around the 11th century, where they thrived in the warm climate and quickly became popular in Mediterranean cuisine. Christopher Columbus brought lemons with him to the New World, and many an explorer wisely carried a stock of lemons as a remedy for the dreaded disease of scurvy. But perhaps the most interesting bit of history comes from a very mysterious realm. Don’t we all remember trying to write secret messages to our best friend using lemon juice? Well, it turns out that wasn’t such a bad idea. Lemon juice was used as invisible ink by war spies and undercover agents going back to Renaissance times and as recently as World War Two!
Like most citrus, lemons are essentially made up of three parts, all of which can be used in many different ways: the zesty outer peel or rind, the bitter layer of white pith, and the tart, juicy segments inside.
Starting on the outside, the rind is full of intense, concentrated flavour. Grated rind, or zest, is an excellent way to get the lemony flavour into something without adding more liquid, at the same time providing extra texture. Thinly peeled rind can easily be candied and used to decorate desserts or for a sweet and sour treat.
Typically, the pith is the most bitter component and is best known for appearing at elevenses in the form of marmalade toast. Paddington aside, pith can also be used to make your own pectin if you are feeling extra industrious.
Then we get to the juice itself, which can be used from one end of the kitchen to the other.
On the savoury side, lemon is a perfect pairing with garlic, herbs, pasta and rice, and no seafood dish is complete without it. Due to its high acidity, adding lemon juice to a marinade will speed up the tenderising process of your protein on its way to the backyard grill. Not to be outdone, the uses on the sweet side of the kitchen are just as innumerable! Our all-time favourite is lemon curd, followed by lemon drizzle cake as a close second.
If you do not have a lemon tree in your backyard, find a friend who does and stock up your fruit bowl. You’ll find yourself using them in every meal and before long, you will be planting your own tree to keep up with demand!