It’s the dreariest time of the year.
Grey skies, a chill wind, icy rain. Yesterday February Gold and the other early daffodils bowed their shriveled heads in defeat. I’m wearing so many layers of clothing that I feel like the Michelin woman: If I never see another fleece, it will be too soon.
This is the kind of winter gloom that makes me dream of sunny Sicily: of silken cavatelli hand rolled in Fabrizia’s tiled kitchen; her signature artichoke caponata layered “like architecture” with celery, onions, and olives; thin chickpea pannelle peeled off a china plate and sizzled in olive oil…
And lemons. Especially the big, pebbly-skinned lemons ripening in the front window of her Palermo apartment. “We have such extraordinary lemons,” she told us, as we thickened a batch of crema di limone (lemon curd) over bubbling hot water. “They are so sweet that we can allow ourselves to mix the juice with only water, eggs and a little cornstarch.”
For centuries Sicily was renowned for its lemons. The entire area around Palermo was known as as the conca d’oro or “golden bowl” where well-tended citrus groves stretched as far as the eye could see. The island’s many citrus varieties included anomalies such as the rare and desirable verdelli, late summer Feminella lemons borne in August when, as Helena Attlee writes, “their highly concentrated, extra-bitter juice” was “ideal for quenching August’s thirst.”
In The Land Where Lemons Grow, Attlee explains that verdelli emerged accidentally when in 1867 the mafia cut off the water to the groves of a citrus farmer who refused to pay his pizzo or protection money. His lemon trees nearly died, but when he paid up and water was turned on again, they burst into bloom and bore green August fruit that was sold for lucrative prices in Sicily’s scorching summer heat.
The most common lemon today is the Interdonato, a large bright yellow citrus which in 1875 sprang from groves near the town of Nizzo that were owned by Colonel Garibaldi Interdonato. The fruit is said to be the product of a cross between a lemon and a citron or cedro—a rough skinned fruit which Atlee describes as an “ancient and primitive object…a Neanderthal on a tree.”
Attlee is a scholar who writes like a dream so it’s worth paying attention to what she has to say about the cedro: “[Its] extraordinary carapace changes gradually from luminous green to a deep golden yellow as it ripens. It is saturated in essential oil and its surface is sculpted into ridges like a downland landscape, or raised in terrible carbuncles. It has the open pores of an alcoholic’s nose and it exudes a perfume so powerful that it can engulf the ground floor of a house, moving from room to room in penetrating swathes. Its smells stronger, wilder and more exotic than a lemon, like the lemon’s big brother, like Mediterranean heat cut through with sweet violets and something spicy.”
A few years ago, B and I had a staggeringly delicious farewell-to-Sicily lunch at Osteria Nero D’Avola, a chic restaurant on a quiet piazza in the resort town of Taormina. After plying us for hours with delicacies such as white olives (“only three trees in Sicily”), gamberi rossi (huge red shrimp with bright blue eyes), and curly spaccatelli pasta with wild fennel, tiny black raisins and pine nuts, chef Turi Siligato sent us wobbling out the front door with three enormous lemons he plucked from a basket in the entrance hall.
As we practically stumbled down the street, he shouted the recipe for a salad in which they had the starring role. ”Slice them very, very thin,” he began.
Later I’ll tell you more about that incredible salad, but for now, let me tell you about the lemons themselves. They were huge and bumpy skinned, with a pronounced “nipple” on one end. When cut, each revealed a thick layer of soft white pith, a little juicy yellow flesh and 2 or 3 seeds. The skin and pith were sweet, while the juice was so sour that just remembering it makes my teeth ache. Were they the hybrid Interdonatos—or something else altogether? Lemons are promiscuous, it seems, crossing and re-crossing, often spontaneously, to produce strange and delicious fruit.
I’ve thought about that lemon salad a lot lately. Here in the US, we are lemon-deprived. Most supermarkets have nothing to offer except the usual hard Eureka or Lisbon lemons with one dimensional acidic juice. Except, of course, in the winter, when Meyer lemons from frost-free California tumble like golden orbs into the grocery stores.
Right now, in a terracotta pot by the French doors opening to the icy terrace, there is a small citrus tree so laden with Meyer lemons when I moved it indoors last November that the delicate branches drooped heavily under their weight. As the citrus ripened over the winter, I’ve picked them one by one, savoring the bittersweet aroma of their their perfumed rinds and the subtly sweet juice. The last four are still dangling from the slender stems, their deep golden skins glinting beneath the tree’s dark green leaves.
Despite obvious differences, the Meyer is the only citrus available to us that could be used to make that remarkable Sicilian lemon salad. Brought to California from China in 1908 by Nicholas Meyer, an agricultural explorer and USDA employee, the fruit is a cross between a true lemon and either a mandarin or a common orange. It has a deep gold, orange-tinged rind with an intoxicating floral aroma and a bittersweet taste. The white pith can be very thick or quite thin, and the juicy flesh may be riddled with lots of seeds—or just a few. When ripe, its juice tends to be less acidic than that of standard grocery store lemons.
According to Harold Magee’s On Food and Cooking, the distinctive floral aroma of its zest may be due to the presence of thymol (thyme) along with limonene (citrus) and pinene (pine).
Whatever its heritage, the Meyer offers sparkling relief from winter’s banal diet. That fragrant skin begs to be grated and the sunny zest brightens almost any wintry dish. I love to sprinkle it over red-skinned potatoes smashed with garlic and herbs, and stir it into winter soups, especially those made with roasted, blandly sweet winter squash. It is delicious grated over pasta with nothing more than olive oil, black olives, a bit of roasted garlic and fresh thyme.
You can substitute the Meyer lemon for ordinary lemons in almost any recipe. It works beautifully in David Tanis’s Risotto with Lemon and Saffron from One Good Dish. Lately I’ve been making a hearty winter risotto studded with roasted carrots and a bit of slab bacon—to brighten the flavors, I stir in a spoonful of the juice and some grated zest at the end.
But I also find the Meyer lemon so delicious that sometimes I simply eat them whole! In more civilized moments, I’ve taken to dicing the entire citrus into small chunks and stirring it into room temperature grain salads. I especially love its sweet and tangy flavors in a bowl of farro with chopped tomatoes, avocado, cilantro and serrano chiles.
And if, like me, you never feel quite right unless there is a jar of preserved lemons in the refrigerator—a must for Moroccan tagines and lots of other dishes—consider making your next batch with whole Meyer lemons. Purists insist that the taste is not authentically Moroccan, but I personally prize the subtler flavor and the lingering floral aroma of the sweetly flavored citrus.
Most pastry chefs adore the Meyer lemon. Emily Luchetti, cookbook author and “chief pastry officer” at San Francisco’s Park Tavern, Marlowe and The Cavalier, pulled the rhododendrons out of her garden when she moved to California and planted Meyer lemon trees in their place. In the 2016 Saveur 100, she writes, “I feel spoiled, having nine trees in my front yard. I stop the car and look at them sometimes from my driveway, because I can’t believe that in the freak of nature that is California, they actually grow a stone’s throw from my house.”
Luchetti is fond of making Meyer lemon curd that can be used in dishes like Eton Mess, where it is folded into a sumptuous bowl of whipped cream and crushed meringues; she also pours it over fresh fruit. You can find her recipe for Meyer Lemon Shortbread Cookie Sandwiches (and for that lemon curd) in the 2016 edition of the Saveur 100.
In a similar vein, I’ve substituted Meyer lemon juice and zest for the ordinary stuff in Patricia Wells’ wonderful recipe for Lemon Lovers Tart with delicious results. (See The Provence Cookbook). It also makes superb lemon ice cream and a wildly aromatic granita.
Cocktails? Bring them on! Just a few weeks ago, B ordered a Sazerac at Bouley Restaurant in Tribeca. Not only was the cocktail expertly made, but it arrived at our table in a glass with a thick strip of Meyer lemon zest floating atop a single large ice cube. The fragrance of the citrus peel was gorgeous, not only imparting a subtle floral aroma to the cocktail but also softening the intensity of the bourbon and bitters.
For more ideas, check out “100 Things to Do with a Meyer Lemon” from The Los Angles Times.
Coming next: Our own version of the Sazerac with Meyer Lemon Peel.