To be mercantile for a moment, a ripe lemon is firm but not hard and should feel heavy for its size. Thin-skinned tends to be juicier than thick and bigger isn’t necessarily better (this is also true in life generally). The juiciest is the very thin-skinned Meyer (Citrus Meyerii), an LA stalwart. Not considered a true lemon at all but a hybrid – a cross between a lemon and a mandarin, some say, though its parentage is unknown – it has a sweeter, more complex, layered flavour, less acidic but still tart enough to perk up discoloured fruits and overly sweet or rich puddings. It cleverly cuts through sugar and cream, lifting a dish to subtle heights of piquancy and freshness. More sour is the Lisbon and Eureka. Lisbon is the juicier of the two, while Eureka is the standard lemon most of us have knocking about. It’s also the one most likely to have been infiltrated with fungicides, insecticides and waxes to make it more appealing. A Eureka picked from the tree is an entirely different animal: cobwebby, misshapen and mottled, and not a bright, waxy yellow at all, but a gentle ochre. With its sea-green leaves attached, it’s almost biblical.
It’s sad we have become such shallow meddlers in the sex life of the lemon. Its journey to ripeness, the subtle changes in colour, weight and fragrance are all to seduce us into plucking it in its prime, thus allowing the reproductive cycle to continue. There’s something almost touching in the knowledge that, being picked, the fruit is experiencing physical pressure for the first time; no longer suspended in mid-air, attached to its parent, it must come down to earth.
You could also try
- Yuzu (Citrus Yunos) if you can get hold of it. It’s a Japanese citron that fruits early – around September or October here. Because of its exceptional tartness, it holds up well to being cooked at high temperatures and is used as a souring ingredient, specifically in the Japanese sauce, Ponzu. It also works well as marmalade and makes a fragrant, rind-heavy syrup, used often in Korean cuisine.
- Ponderosa (Citrus Pyriformis) which looked like a grapefruit to me, but is actually a lemon-citron hybrid. The Middle Eastern community in LA apparently makes jam out of the thick rind, which has a floral scent. It also makes a fine lemon curd.
- Sorrento lemons, also known as Femminello St. Teresa. Native to the Amalfi coast in Italy, they’re typically the variety used in making limoncello, a bitter digestif that uses lemon rind steeped in grain alcohol (which apparently you could also use to run your car). Layers of tufo and limestone in the area create the perfect soil for cultivation, which produces an exceptionally aromatic rind. Locals eat thick slices of this citrus, skin and all, with a dusting of sugar.
- Hang some lemon peel out to dry in a warm place (by a sunny window, say). When it’s leathery, put it in a jar of sugar and use for baking.
- I have seen children eat neat lemon quarters here as I used to do oranges (making the segment cover your teeth and then smiling eerily etc). I was both impressed and alarmed by this. I’m not suggesting you do the same, just informing you of the phenomenon.
- Lemon-infused olive oil, also known as agrumato in Italy, is best made at home, and used within a couple of days. In Skye Gyngell’s recipe, you finely peel the zest – no pith – of 3 lemons using a vegetable peeler. Put in a pan with 1 cup (250ml) of extra virgin olive oil, and heat very gently to body temperature (about 99F). Remove and let steep for about an hour before using. Lovely drizzled over grilled fish, chicken, Burrata, buffalo mozzarella, ricotta or fresh Mexican cheese.
- Lemon sandwiches, courtesy of Mrs Grigson: “Cut fresh, soft-skinned lemons into very thin slices and sandwich them between thin wholemeal bread slices, thickly buttered. Serve with smoked salmon and marinaded fish.”
- North African Preserved Lemons
A doddle, and fantastic strewn over ice cream, in tagines, added to sauteed vegetables, couscous, and mashed into a herby butter. Use Eureka lemons because their thick skins are a bonus here, but make sure they’re organic and unsprayed as the peel is what you’ll be eating, not the flesh. Cut 8-10 washed lemons into quarters from top to stem, without going all the way, and pack the cuts with a generous tablespoon of coarse sea salt (never table salt). Squash the lemons into a large, glass jar, giving them a good ramming to get the juices flowing. Add any or all of these: a cinnamon stick, a whole dried chili, a bay leaf, a few cardamom pods and coriander seeds, then seal and leave overnight. For the next 2-3 days, keep pressing the lemons down, as they begin to deflate. Now top up with fresh lemon juice so that the fruit is fully submerged and leave for about a month, after which time they’ll be ready to use. Keeps for about six months, looking vibrant and virtuous on your kitchen shelf.