Although lemons and limes are often used interchangeably (and both names come from the Arabic word limah), limes are noticeably different: stronger, sharper, almost darker in taste. Whereas lemons grow well in a Mediterranean climate with long, dry spells and poor soil, true limes favour the tropics. The little beauties above came from an expedition we took to a Mexican supermarket in the valley. So taken were we with the meat section – pickled pigs’ ears daintily presented in trays, sheets of beef honeycomb tripe that looked almost marine-like, and the wonderfully labelled “beef feet” – that we temporarily forgot why we had come, which was to find proper Mexican limes. These nuggets of blistering juice are pretty standard in Mexican cuisine: spritzed over avocados, as a way of ‘cooking’ fish in a ceviche, in margaritas, mixed with sea salt and squeezed into a cold beer, mixed with salt again and sprinkled over chunks of mango, as well as being the star of the show in limonada.
I am embarrassed to say I have often been at a loss as to how to best employ limes. It was only when I chanced upon them at the farmers’ market that I gave them any real thought. These were Persian and Palestine sweet limes, the difference here being the lack of acidity which creates an exceptionally mild flavour. What character they have is concentrated in the rind, which has a light, clean, fresh pine aroma, so I used this in a curd and simply ate the fruit which was at least succulent, and, for an added bonus, apparently cures “everything.”
Tarter and more piercing are the California-grown Key limes. Interestingly, these are lemon-yellow, which according to my sage at Mud Creek Ranch – who patiently puts up with my endless battery of questions – is their natural colour here; green rind can actually be an indication of the fruit’s unreadiness. They are hell to pick. The branches have thick, angry thorns that slash the skin and make it itch for days. The fact that they can grow here at all is due to an amazing micro climate at the ranch, where they flourish alongside bananas and cherimoyas.
I was surprised to find that my brief investigation into US recipes for lime yielded little apart from Key Lime Pie, a local speciality from Florida’s coral islands – the keys – which is made with the juice of the fruit (Citrus aurantifolia ‘Swingle‘), eggs and condensed milk. The lime’s acidity cleverly ‘cooks’ the pie, and this is possibly why the first recorded recipe came from local sponge fishermen who had no access to refrigeration or a stove (and obviously went through a lot of condensed milk). Semi-wild limes still grow in the area to this day, though they are no longer cultivated due to the 1926 hurricane which destroyed all the citrus groves. Growers replaced the Key Lime trees with Persian Lime because they are easier to grow and pick, but have none of the original’s arresting flavour.
I don’t know whether it’s because I’m a Northerner (as in I hail from Northern Europe), but I am instinctively drawn to the more lumpen uses for fruit – a baked pudding, a warm tart, a crater of puff pastry exuding steam, something thick and hopefully syrupy within, so lime marmalade was pretty much a given for me to try, if only to plunder my childhood memories of Rose’s fluorescent version, with its dainty green shred.
Grilled bananas with lime marmalade and spices
Bananas are best eaten in the spring, according to the experts, so this recipe can make you feel doubly smug. If you haven’t got round to making the lime marmalade – or never intend to – then a squeeze of lime would also work here. Serving this with something creamy is essential if you want the syrup to matter. Thick yoghurt is good in the morning, cream at other times, and add almonds if you want a more interesting texture. Lime is a friend of the banana and opposites definitely attract in this case; soft and placid meets brisk and glossy, yet somehow each makes the other more itself in the process.
2 tbs of juice from an orange or tangerine
2 tbs lime marmalade with shred (or lime juice)
Pinch of nutmeg
Pinch of cardamom
1 tbs butter
Peel the bananas and slice them in half, lengthways. Lie them cut side up, in a shallow baking dish. Mix the marmalade and juice together and spoon over the bananas. Dot with butter which has been mixed with the ground spices. Grill until soft and brown (about five minutes). Scatter with toasted slivers of almond if you have them, and serve with either yogurt or cream. You could also try grilling the whole fruit, unpeeled, until black, tearing off a strip of skin to eat the hot, banana fondant within, and serve the syrup separately.
Interesting fact; British explorers and traders in the West Indian colonies used limes to prevent scurvy, which is why we’re still called ‘limeys’ to this day.
Steering clear of the sweet: Yotam Ottolenghi is a fan of lime. His Iranian legume noodle soup uses the juice to cut through soured cream, and lime halves accompany his corn and squash fritters. If you’re a fan of pickles, then pickled limes can be used as the basis of a sour relish for spicy dishes, and anything with an Indian bent.