From pies, possets, and sorbets to curries, salads and soups. From ice cold, thirst quenching lemonade to hot, soothing tea. There’s air fresheners, laundry detergents, shampoo and washing up liquids. All over the world people love the flavour, acidity and aroma of lemons. For us we always have fresh lemons in our house and we use them in our cooking almost everyday. This got us thinking about what makes lemons so special and how we have fresh lemons all year around.
One Big Old Family Tree
Citrus fruits are unique among fruit trees in their ability to cross-pollinate and genetically mutate. All the citrus fruits originated from just 3 parent plants in East and South East Asia; the citron, the mandarin and the pomelo. In the wild there are thousands of varieties of citrus and humans only cultivate a tiny percentage of what is a giant citrus family tree. The lemons we eat today were developed in the Middle East around 100 AD and arrived in the Mediterranean where they were planted by the Moors in Spain around 400 AD. They are now grown in sub tropical regions all over the world but Spain still remains the largest grower and exporter of fresh lemons.
The lemon is the most acidic of the citrus family with 5% of the juice being citric acid. In our household it is the primary source of acid in our cooking. The flavour and aroma of citrus fruits comes from oil droplets in the juice of the flesh and also the oil glands in the skin. In lemons, those two oils are quite distinct from each other and serve different purposes in cooking and flavouring foods. When you squeeze a lemon you release the juice from the flesh and at the same time the oil glands in the peel burst open sending out an aromatic and flammable spray into the air. Lemon juice loses its bright flavours when cooked and so we usually add the juice right at the end of a recipe but the oils from the skin are much more robust and can be used in cooked foods in the form of lemon zest. As soon as lemon juice comes into contact with oxygen the flavour compounds begin to break down, this is why bottled lemon juice never tastes as fresh and ‘lemony’ as freshly squeezed juice. Bottled lemon juices contain preservatives like sulphites to stop them from going rotten. After spending months and sometimes years on the shelf their nutritional benefits will have decreased dramatically so always use a freshly squeezed lemon whenever possible. Between the flesh and the skin there is the white layer of pith, which is very bitter and generally not eaten but it is a rich source of pectin so useful in making jams or marmalade.
So how do we get lemons all year round?
In Europe almost all the fresh lemons come from Spain, while Italy and Argentina are major suppliers of lemon juice in the world market. There are many different varieties of lemons and with careful planning the harvest season can be stretched from October all the way through to August. In the few months that lemons aren’t available from Spain they usually come to Europe from South Africa of Argentina. Because lemons keep well they are almost always shipped, rather than airfreighted. Italy is also famous for its lemon production, Italian lemons are said to be of a higher quality than Spanish ones but the season is shorter and a lot of them are processed and not sold fresh.
Ripe lemons from the tree have a natural wax coating that protects the skin from deterioration and the fruit from going rotten. However most lemons are picked before they are ripe and are washed, which removes any of this natural coating, so artificial wax coatings are applied to keep the fruit for longer. In non-organic lemons these are usually petrochemical based, very hard to remove and not recommended for eating. Hence you should never use the skin of non-organic lemons for zesting. Organic lemons typically use a bees wax coating to preserve their shelf life which is harmless but means the peel doesn’t taste great. You can also source un-waxed lemons and we recommend using unwaxed organic where possible.
Lemons have a wide range of health benefits and have found all manner of uses in many cultures throughout the ages. They are packed full of vitamin C which is fantastic for fighting colds and flu symptoms. They have antibacterial, antiviral, and immune-boosting powers and have been shown to improve absorption of minerals. Their bitter and sour flavours act to break down stagnant material and increase bile production in the liver.
Mu drinks half a lemon in warm water first thing every morning because it refreshes, cleanses and hydrates the body after a night sleep. According to Chinese medicine sour foods such as lemons are useful to stimulate activity in the body and focus the mind. It is also worth noting that lemons are not good for stomach ulcers, the acid will aggravate it. In addition citric acid thins the blood so should be used with caution in those with weak blood signs.
If you love lemons as much as we do and if you have any more information or fun facts about lemons please leave us a comment.
This is one of our favourite winter recipes where the lemons really shine through. Having the bright acidity is so important in balancing the flavour of the split peas and rich coconut.
Split Pea, Coconut and Lemon Soup
200g green split peas
2 medium leeks
400ml coconut cream (from a tin or make your own)
20g coconut oil
500ml vegetable stock
1 unwaxed lemon, zest and juice
Rinse the split peas well and leave them to soak for at least 4 hours (or overnight). We add a squeeze of lemon or a splash of vinegar to the water, to find out why check out our post on pulses. Trim and wash the leeks and slice into 2cm cubes. Put the leeks into the pan with the coconut oil and saute for 10-15 minutes until very tender. Add the drained split peas, coconut cream, stock, lemon zest and a generous serving of salt. Cover, bring to the boil and simmer for approximately 1 hour until the split peas are completely cooked. Add half the lemon juice and then blend the soup. Check the seasoning and add more lemon juice if needed. Enjoy