Isn’t it amazing?
No sooner did I start writing about Sicily than the clouds disappeared. Now it’s 70 degrees outside, the sky is a piercing blue and the daffodils are turning their faces to the sun.
Such is the power of lemons.
I want to tell you all about the extraordinary salad made from the lemons Turi Siligato gave us in Taormina. Turi is an obsessed chef who keeps a sharp eye out for special foodstuffs to serve at his restaurant, Osteria Nero d’Avola. On his days off, he tramps through abandoned orchards and “ghost villages” built by Fascists, foraging for white olives or wild fennel or any other rarity that tickles his curiosity.
At the end of a fantastic luncheon, he sent us on our way with three enormous lemons: They were bright yellow with a rough, slightly pitted skin and a pronounced nipple at the flower end. What were they? My notes say Interdonato followed by a (?) I’m unclear if they were the lemon-citron cross that that we encountered elsewhere in Sicily, or something else entirely. He might have picked them up on one of his expeditions, or they might have appeared at the back door in a farmer’s basket. Who knows?
But whatever their provenance, I couldn’t wait to try the recipe he called out to us as we left the restaurant.
Back at our hotel—a peculiar hostelry constructed mostly of dark lava rock from Mt. Etna whose steaming cone we could see from our 2nd floor window—we gave one lemon to the harried cook and asked her to make us a salad as Turi directed. It was essential, he said, to slice the whole lemon, including peel and pith, very thin and dress it simply with olive oil, sea salt, onion and oregano.
But when it came to the table that evening, there was no peel or pith—only the center flesh which was so sour that it was impossible to eat more than a mouthful. Later we heard that owner’s wife, who appeared to preside over the kitchen without ever sullying her hands, decided the cook had got it wrong and that the sweet rind and white pith should be discarded before serving the sour pulp to the crazy Americans.
One lemon down, two to go.
Back in Rome a few days later, we took a second lemon to Al Ceppo, a chic restaurant in the Parioli district. It’s the kind of place where Senators gather for lunch, and in evening, well-heeled families with school children show up for convivial suppers in the back room where the trunk of an ancient tree has pride of place. The food is inventive, the host genial, and his wife, a superb chef in the footsteps of her mother, who founded the restaurant. Just being there, we felt like members of a special club.
It was our second or third visit and when we explained about the salad, our host smiled graciously, took the lemon and disappeared into the kitchen. Soon he emerged with two plates: As instructed, the whole lemon was cut paper thin and the slices were arranged in overlapping circles with a few shavings of onion, a sprinkle of dried oregano, crunchy sea salt, and a spoonful or two of good olive oil.
I can say unequivocally that it was heaven on a plate. The sweet peel and soft white pith balanced the mild acidity of the pulp, while the onion, sea salt and oregano added zesty accents that tickled my taste buds. Each flavor was bright and distinct, and the olive oil just smooth enough to pull them all together.
Half way through the salad we noticed a young English couple at the table next to us whispering excitedly to their waiter. Moments later, our host approached us apologetically. “They would like to have a lemon salad,” he said, “but I told them that the other half of the lemon is yours.”
The other half? We were suddenly distracted by a plate of gamberi rossi atop a potato timbale in a thick pool of tart tomato sauce, and another of tuna tartare seasoned with shavings of dried black olives and crunchy sea salt. Wielding our forks, we said nobly, “Of course, they may have the other half.”
They loved the salad as much as we did. Two lemons down, one to go.
Salads made of lemon, or its distant cousin, citron, aren’t unknown in Sicily. In Helena Attlee’s The Land Where Lemons Grow, there is an interesting recipe for Insalata di Cedro: To make it, you take a small, ripe citron and discard the bitter peel and the pulp, leaving only the sweet, white pith which is then cut into very thin slices and placed in a bowl. It is dressed with olive oil and lemon juice and seasoned with sea salt and black pepper. You let it sit for an hour, then add chopped parsley and black olives before serving.
Fabrizia Lanza raved to us about the sweetness of Sicilian lemons. In her cookbook, Coming Home to Sicily, she describes the citron grown on her family’s Sicilian estate as “aromatic and jasmine flavored” with “a thick layer of white, spongy pith and “a firm, sour heart about the size of a walnut.” Her own salad recipe begins with a whole citron thinly sliced and mixed with equally thin slices of three fennel bulbs. The mixture is dressed with red wine vinegar, dried oregano, olive oil, sea salt and black pepper and allow to stand for 15 minutes before serving.
But let’s face it. Compared with the Italians, we Americans are lemon-deprived. I count myself lucky to have a little Meyer lemon tree that is producing golden orbs with sweet zest and white pith surrounding pleasantly acidic pulp. It is the only lemon commercially available here that could be used to make a version of Turi’s delicious salad.
Incidentally, it’s instructive to look at the website for the University of California Riverside which has an extensive citrus collection. At first it appears as if there are many lemon varieties one would like to grow—or at least buy from a farmer. But reading more closely, you repetitively encounter descriptions such as “tasteless,” “numerous seeds,” “bitter rind,” “flesh that appears dry and ricey,” and so on.
Lemons that taste “good” or that have a pleasingly complex flavor seem to be few and far between. Oddly, the Meyer lemon gets a bit of bad rap on the website. Quoting from The Citrus Industry Vol. 1 (1967), the entry reads: “The fruit is too tender and juicy to withstand handling, shipping and storage without excessive waste. Moreover, it does not cure or color well during storage, nor is it acceptable to most consumers when lemons are available.“
Well, time has moved on since 1967, and lemon lovers who don’t live in California (where everyone seems to have a Meyer lemon tree) now wait eagerly for the winter influx of these golden globes with the flowery, bittersweet rind and brightly flavored juice. (If you remember, they sprang from a cross between a lemon and a Mandarin or other orange.) The objections cited above, however, do show how standards like shipping and storage, and consumer familiarity can determine what is grown, especially when the big customer is a chain of supermarkets.
As it happened, before we left Rome, I cut open the third and last lemon in order to remove the seeds. I brought them home—all three of them—and planted each one in a small pot. After a month or so, little green shoots emerged from the soil. Thrilled, I dreamed of my own Sicilian lemon orchard. I coddled them for weeks, bringing them in and out of sun, watering them sparely, and even feeding them a touch of fertilizer. But it was not to be: One by one, their leaves shriveled and the little trees died.
Perhaps Sicilian lemons don’t travel well. Or maybe I was just too attentive.
Anyway, here’s the recipe for the Sicilian Lemon Salad, substituting our own California Meyer lemons for the citrus. It’s a wonderful winter palate refresher, the sort of dish that gives lift off to hearty meals such braised lamb shanks or meaty, roasted fish like cod or halibut. Of course, if you really love lemons, you can just eat it on its own. I do!
Sicilian Lemon Salad with Onion & Oregano
(adapted from Turi Siligato at Osteria Nero d’Avola, Taormina, Sicily)
To serve two:
1 large ripe Meyer lemon, preferably organic
White onion, a few thin slices
Fresh oregano, chopped (or dried oregano, if you prefer)
Crunchy sea salt, to taste
Extra virgin olive oil, to taste
Since you are going to eat the entire lemon, including the rind, scrub the citrus very well. Then slice it thinly; each round should be no more than ¼ inch thick. Discard any seeds. Arrange the slices on two plates in overlapping circles.
Cut the thin onion slices in half and separate the rings. Arrange them on top of the lemon slices. Sprinkle with a bit of chopped fresh or dried oregano. Drizzle with olive oil and season with sea salt to taste.
Serve immediately–and dream of Sicily.