I come from a land — California — where lemons grow on trees. To buy them in a store would be ridiculous since they grow outside your window. And if you don’t have a lemon tree, your neighbor does and will share them with you. In season, there really are lemons everywhere.
Once, I wrote a humorous-ish front-page column for the San Francisco Chronicle about how there are lemons everywhere in the Bay Area, and that every time I pass a tree, I stash one or two in my handbag. They ran a cartoon of me dressed up as a burglar, reaching into lemon trees.
Emails flooded in saying: we have a tree! Come pick our lemons anytime! I became a huge fan of Lemon Ladies Orchard, visiting them when I am in the area (they mail order the most beautiful, fragrant lemons you can imagine). But — there is always at least one “but” — I also got a nasty, legal-sounding email from a local sheriff stating the code for the law I was breaking, and that if I tried to do that in his county, I would be swiftly arrested.
There is more to my love of lemons than theft, however. I take, but I also give. One of my joys is planting lemon trees. If you have a birthday or a wedding or give me any reason to give you a gift, for instance, if I stay with you, I might purchase one as a thank you. Throughout northern California, I have left a trail of lemon trees, a legacy that warms my heart. Since I can’t grow citrus in northern Europe — and believe me, I’ve tried — I do the next best thing and plant them any and everywhere else.
Loving lemons might be inherited; my grandmother held the belief that they were a miracle cure for most things, often mixed with honey. Add water and drink for a sore throat. And for coughing? Add cognac. Skin breakouts? Mix lemon, honey, and oatmeal for a facial mask. In summer, she would rinse my hair with lemon for sun-streaks. And of course, one didn’t drink tea without a nice, fresh lemon to squeeze in.
Besides medicinally, lemon was our favorite flavor for sweets: cakes layered with lemon curd, lemon meringue pie, and tender pound cake drizzled with lemon glaze, holes poked on top of the cake so it could soak right down to the bottom, becoming almost crisp on top, and moist, oh so moist, within.
And how can I forget lemon pudding cake? A soupy, tangy lemon sauce topped with a lemony cake; like magic, it baked from one batter into this all-encompassing symphony of textures, in the key of lemon. We called it simply “lemon fluff.” My grown-up version was a cold lemon mousse that I made and made and made and made when I was first learning to cook. I thought I would make it forever, then one day I stopped. Often I think I will make it again, and then I can’t remember anything about the recipe. #regret
It wasn’t until I left home that I got an idea of how many ways lemons could be eaten — sometimes, even in chicken or vegetable soup — and I couldn’t wait to tell my grandmother. Sometimes you might think something is a lime, but it’s really a green lemon.
I traveled the Mediterranean and lemon was always there for me. In Greece, a plate of lemon wedges was always on the table. Squeeze it onto . . . whatever you like. Mixed with raw egg and stirred into sauces and soups, it is perhaps Greece’s most iconic dish: avgolemono. Fresh lemon is there for salads, either leaves or chopped vegetables, and it is there for cooked vegetables, hot or cold. And of course, lemon is there for fish. Always for fish.
In Sicily, the olive oil-lemon sauce (with oregano) transformed my fish-eating life for the rest of my days, though the lemon salad of Procida was a strong contender in that category. I also discovered that as much as I love buttery or olive oily pasta, I love it even more with lemon (shameless plug: I wrote about creamy lemon spaghetti for The New York Times). Most rich and buttery dishes are better with lemon, including Hollandaise sauce, or any creamy pan sauce. So too things already lemony are usually better with more lemon; just a whisper always makes me want more.
It was, therefore, a surprise to discover that the whole world didn’t love lemons quite as much as I (and Mediterraneans) did. Moving to the U.K., my new eaters weren’t used to the sharp, sour flavor, and also, lemons were simply expensive. I looked and looked and looked, but in East London, they were not growing on trees; nor are they in Hampshire, where I live now.
I had for so long taken them for granted . . . their new (to me) rarity gave a sharp sense of loss, and made me long for them; it dawned on me that I wouldn’t automatically, always, just be surrounded by lemons. Life felt very different.
But one day I came home from a trip to Naples and unloaded my backpack: lemons. Lemons, lemons, and more lemons. They were fresh and fragrant, and now, they were sitting in a bowl on a table in my London kitchen.
There, they glowed, golden, in the grey London winter light (because citrus has the good manners to be in season smack dab in the middle of winter). Just to gaze at that bowl of lemons lifted my spirits.
Reaching out, I held one in my hands. Its skin felt smooth, and I touched it to my face and inhaled its sweet aroma, then scraped its skin a little with my fingernail and the whole room filled with the scent of lemon. It was like a reunion with an old friend. From now on, I decided, I would always have a bowl of lemons in my kitchen to reassure myself (of so many things, mostly of where lemons grow). Having fresh lemons means the Mediterranean is in my kitchen, and my grandmother is there, too.
Although lemons last well on a table, so that you can admire them and sniff their aroma as you walk by, to keep them longer and prevent them from molding, they should be stashed in the refrigerator.
Then there is preserving: as with many fruits and vegetables, it not only prolongs their lives but adds another dimension — often pickle-like, such as the traditional Moroccan way of salt-curing. This lemony-salty-sour juicy pickle is so refreshing to have on hand, a bit olive-like, with an intense lemon flavor. I use them in traditional Moroccan and Middle Eastern dishes, but also in western dishes, especially tuna salad.
There are so many different types of lemons. In California, we grew up eating mostly Meyer lemons, sweeter and less acidic than Eureka, which is the one most cultivated commercially in the U.S. A childhood treat was to pierce the skin of a lemon just big enough for a straw, and insert a candy stick of any flavor, the kind that has a hole in the middle, then suck up the sour juice through the candy straw. It was kind of thrilling.
Italy has probably more types of lemons than anywhere else: Sorrento, Amalfi, Procida, and the juicy Sicilian lemon. But Sicily is not the only Mediterranean island that grows abundant lemons. A few years ago I spent several weeks on the Greek island of Zakynthos with friends; it was lemon season, everything we cooked and ate was lemon. Throughout the village, I was given the name Limonia (which is a popular name on nearby Cephalonia). We squeezed the juice, stuffed the lemon shells, candied the skins, and one day sliced the lemons thinly and froze them in a layer of sugar for a crisp frozen cookie-like treat.
The lemon rind itself was so mild and tender that I began to use it to wipe up sauces on the plate, instead of using bread. Tasty, and oh so much less calorific. When I occasionally return to the village, I am still known as “Little Limonia.”
But enough about me, this is about the lemon, right? For maximum juice, try rolling a lemon on a hard surface before you squeeze it. And though I once saw this “trick” claimed by a famous celebrity chef as his own invention, I’ve known it forever: my grandmother taught me, as we were gathering lemons from her garden.
Marlena Spieler was born in Sacramento, California, and has written more than 70 cookbooks. She has contributed to Bon Appétit and Saveur, and wrote the award-winning food San Francisco Chronicle column, “The Roving Feast.” Her life and career have been focused on cooking, tasting, and sharing stories about food. She lives in the U.K. Her book A Taste of Naples: Neapolitan Culture, Cuisine, and Cooking was published in October 2018 by Rowman & Littlefield.