Throughout my twenties, moving from house to house, the one thing that determined if a property was just right, was access to a lemon tree. Be it a branch, laden with fruit, hanging over the fence, a neighbourhood tree from which a little pilfering now and then in the dark would not be detected, or, better still, a tree of my own, this simple rule has kept me in good stead. I love lemons. Growing up in a typically Australian suburb on the (then) outskirts of Sydney, the lemon tree with its thick gnarled branches was the most useful plant in our otherwise very English cottage garden. The fruit was thick-skinned and the juice particularly sour. I used to mime to ABBA songs with a girl from next door who would eat the lemons straight from the tree, wincing, but soldiering on as if on some sort of mission. Good Lord. My lips still curl at the thought.
Lemons are simply indispensable in the kitchen. Cooking, indeed eating without them would be unthinkable. Anna Del Conte in Amaretto, Apple Cake & Artichokes says, ‘I feel totally lost when I discover I haven’t got a single lemon in the larder’. Might I add to that a lemon within short walking distance?
When we moved here a full twelve months ago, the giant, showy cumquat tree that swamps the front garden overshadowed the lemon, its dark leaves lurking in the far corner of the eye. What a lemon tree. One of the down sides of renting is that the garden, like the house itself, isn’t ever really yours to own. You cannot take a garden with you, nor can you make one, a real one, in the space of just a few years. I’ve had a few trees in my time, but this one, a Meyer as far as I can tell, is a corker. Thin-skinned, sweet of flesh and heaving with fruit, it’s a joy – just beware of the stabbing thorns, ever-ready to dig deep into wandering fingers. A Meyer, one equipped with a magnificent defense system, for sure.
Should we ever settle somewhere permanently, the first thing I will do is plant a Meyer lemon. Drought tolerant, useful, beautiful. You couldn’t ask for more.
What to do with all of that fruit? Salty preserved lemons. Once you’ve got the taste for this uniquely Moroccan specialty you’ll find yourself slipping a finely chopped chunk or two into almost anything. A tray of potatoes, roasted with wedges of red onion and a chopped red pepper or two then tossed with olive oil are lifted by a last minute addition of the lemons. Fresh coriander, smoked paprika and cumin, a downright addictive combination, even love that salt when tossed with fresh young broad beans (double-peeled) and tender chickpeas for a salad doused in grassy olive oil and fresh lemon juice.
Speedy preserved lemons
Adapted, only slightly, from Paula Wolfert’s recipe in Mediterranean Greens and Grains. Ready in seven days.
6 juicy, thin-skinned lemons, unsprayed and unwaxed
60g (2oz) of coarse sea salt (the big, grey chunks)
Cut 2 of the lemons into eighths and discard any obvious seeds. Pack the chunks into a clean glass jar. Squeeze the juice from the remaining lemons until you have about 100ml. Add the sea salt and stir. Pour into the jar, secure the lid tightly and give it all a good shake. Leave at room temperature with the lid on for 7 days. Shake the jar once or twice a day during this time.
After 7 days the lemons will be ready. Keep in the refrigerator and make sure the top of the jar covered with a thin layer of olive oil after opening. The oil becomes lemony and delicious and is perfect for dressing a salad when you’ve finished the lemons off. To begin with, take one eighth, and very finely chop both skin and flesh adding to your chosen dish. Taste before deciding to add more (I always seem to add more). Many recipes tell you to discard the flesh and use only the skin, but I’ve never found that to be necessary.
Keeps, at the back of the fridge, for about 12 months. But don’t wait that long.
Here’s something well worth being the first thing you might make with those lemons. For Christina, an excellent gardener.
Rainbow chard and feta filo pie – for 4
The only fancy bit of equipment you need here is a (very cheap) pastry brush. I also add the beetroot stalks, chopped and cooked with the chard stems when they are fresh and look snappy. The filling goes all pink and green – very pretty.
¼ cup of currants
¼ cup of pine nuts
1 bunch of rainbow chard or silverbeet
2 onions, very thinly sliced
2 cloves of garlic, very finely chopped
2 huge handfuls of greens (beetroot, rocket, whatever you’ve got)
200g of feta (goat’s feta works best)
½ a preserved lemon, finely chopped (more if you like)
80g of unsalted butter, melted
1 packet of filo pastry
Soak the currants in freshly boiled water for 20 minutes. Drain when ready. Toast the pine nuts in a dry pan until golden, tossing all the time – they must not burn. Cool on a plate and set aside. Separate the rainbow chard leaves from the stems. Trim the stems and cut into small dice. Wash the leaves, shake them dry and then roll up and slice thinly into ribbons. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a heavy-based frying or saucepan and sauté the onion until pale gold. Add the stems and garlic and cook over a medium heat, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Add the sliced chard leaves to the pan, followed by the beetroot or rocket leaves and trickle over 1 more tablespoon of oil. Cover the pan until the leaves have softened, then remove lid and stir well. Add currants, a pinch of salt and toasted pine nuts and cook, lifting and turning, until the stems are tender but the leaves are glossy and green.
Break the eggs into a large bowl, beat briefly with a fork and crumble in the feta. Add the preserved lemon and a good grinding of black pepper. Tip in the chard filling and gently mix. Brush shallow ovenproof dish with a little of the melted butter.
Unfurl the whole packet of the pastry on the bench and place a clean tea towel on top. Use 4 or 5 sheets of pastry to line the prepared dish, overlapping and letting the edges hang over the sides. Pour in the filling. Crumple the overlapping edges of pastry on to the filing. Brush the remaining sheets of pastry liberally with the butter, crumple each sheet and arrange over the top, ensuring it is completely covered. Bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes until the filling is set and the pastry golden. Cool slightly before slicing.
There are many other ways to use a lemon too. Watch this space.