29 August 2023 · Consuming passions
Bruce McMichael is a food writer, podcaster and Creative Writing tutor. He first realized the transformative power of lemons at the age of eight, drinking deliciously sweetened glasses of cold home-made lemonade while perched on his grandmother’s kitchen counter. Today, he is more likely to have a lemon-inspired cocktail than a glass of lemonade; but he says “those same tangy notes still take me right back to Granny’s kitchen and her warm embrace”.
by Bruce McMichael
As a keen home cook, my passion for lemons began a few decades ago as I realised how often lemons topped my shopping list. I was always reaching for one to slice into a cocktail, squeeze across a fatty fish on the grill or tuck into a chicken being prepped for the roasting tin.
Few ingredients straddle the culinary worlds of savoury and sweet so wholly and comfortably as the lemon. While perhaps not the most beautiful fruit—often knobbly, misshaped and waxy—they do pack a culinary power punch. My taste buds thrive on their sourness and acidity, and I seek out the light, fresh punch of flavour that lemon adds to my cooking and drinks, whether I’m making a simple vinaigrette dressing for a green salad or tenderising and preparing a fish ceviche.
Lemons are incredibly versatile in cooking and baking; their zest, flesh and juice can all be used for both savoury or sweet dishes, enhancing the flavour and adding a bright, citrusy element to the palate. Lemons can, of course, be used to make fruit jellies, cosmetics, household cleaners and even medicines, but it is their culinary role that really makes them stand out. Their peel is full of fragrant oil, their flesh packed with juice and culinary possibilities. A cursory glance across the index pages of many cookbooks will reveal several entries for lemon. It’s rare that a sweet or savoury dish isn’t improved with a squirt of fresh lemon juice.
In mid-June, you’ll find me scouring the hedgerows seeking delicate sprays of tiny, creamy white flowers of the elderflower tree, with their sweetly herbal, summery aroma. The alchemy happens when the flowers are combined with lemon juice and zest, a generous helping of caster sugar and boiling water. The mix transforms into elderflower cordial, a vital and delicious ingredient for both spirited and non-alcoholic cocktails.
A keen traveller, I seek out and plan itineraries around lemon and citrus groves from Amalfi, Lake Garda and Liguria in Italy, to Seville and Valencia in Spain. Many of these inspiring places have their own famed variety of lemons, such as the thin-skinned, sweet-fleshed Menton lemon, or the giant Amalfi and Cedro lemons of Calabria in Southern Italy. Cedro lemons offer a sweeter, fragrant zest and peel that are delicious raw or shaved into risottos. Although lacking in juice and famously known for its thick pith, this variety is perfect for making marmalades, candied fruits, and liqueurs – notably limoncello.
Lemons (citrus limon) and their sister citrus fruits, grapefruit, oranges and limes, originate from the hills and mountainsides of Southeast Asia. Over the centuries, they gradually migrated westwards, settling into areas around the Middle East, particularly in modern day Iran and Turkey. Their arrival into Italy, Spain and North Africa between AD 1000 – 1200 is when the West’s love affair with the lemon first began. Italy’s northern province of Liguria saw the first cultivation of the fruit before the more suitable climate further south in Calabria and Sicily attracted growers.
Restaurateur and writer Keith Floyd has a brilliantly simple recipe for Lemon Granita. One spoonful of this and you’ll be packing your bags for a Sicilian holiday.
Growing best in subtropical climates—from the vast, sprawling groves of California and Florida to precariously balanced on cliffs in Amalfi and in the micro-climate of Menton on the French Riviera—the lemon is prized for its zest, peel, and flesh to be squeezed, salted or drizzled over innumerable dishes. It’s a vital ingredient for marinades, salad dressing, tooth-achingly refreshing drinks. Lemons are salted and preserved across North Africa, with Moroccan cuisine most closely associated with this technique, which offers intense perfumed flavours.
When preserved lemons are called for in western European or North American cooking—for example, in stews, stocks or soups—it’s best to wash the salt from the lemon slice, then soak the slice for a few minutes to reduce salinity. They’re flavour-enhancing when paired with roast chicken or Coronation chicken, and they give Moroccan-style fish tagines that particular brightness and pickled flavour. A finely chopped slice of preserved lemon adds sparkle to a potato salad or tomato-based side.
Here are some of my go-to recipes when I’m in the mood for a lemony boost in my cooking. It’s a fun challenge to create a lemon-themed menu of three or more courses that is well-balanced and doesn’t overwhelm with citrus notes.
In my garden, I have three potted lemon trees, each around 1 metre in height. They line my terrace during the summer and are dotted around the house throughout the wintry months when frosty mornings threaten. Sunlight flashes off a glossy leaf as I scrunch it in my hand and deeply inhale its sweet scent with a tingling lemony aroma. I am transported from my garden terrace to the citrus groves of Sorrento, southern Italy, where the citrus trees are heavy with blossom and expectation. The leaf sparks a flurry of culinary ideas such as risotto; pasta with linguine and anchovies; a lemon and almond cake, or an after-dinner shot of limoncello. On balmy summer days, I gently pick three or four leaves, carefully avoiding the needle-sharp thorns. After a quick rinse they’re ready to prep for a re-creation of a mozzarella with grilled lemon leaves dish that I sampled once in Sorrento. This dish is perfect as a side, with the tangy, floral-flavoured cheese absorbing a zesty hint of the fragrant lemon.
In 2020, I spent a few weeks sofa-surfing at my son’s apartment in Crete, where he was working at the time. The weather was hot and dry, and we enjoyed mixing a Tom Collins or swapping out lime for lemon juice to create lemon margaritas with shots of tequila and Cointreau. We’d then find our way back to the kitchen to prepare a colourful Greek salad spritzed with lemon juice and served alongside a plate of Salmoriglio lamb skewers.
Once, a visit to Naples and the nearby Amalfi peninsula, I stepped inside a garish tourist shop and came across a ceramic pot, some 25 cm in height and 13cm in diameter. Covered in vibrant yellow lemons, the pot was tactile. Priced at €45, I hesitated to part with my cash, but after some thought I made the purchase. It now sits on my dining table, radiating energy and reflecting a cheerful Mediterranean luminosity into my southern England room. It’s probably the best €45 I’ve ever spent. That radiance filters into my kitchen, where my fruit bowl rarely lacks a huddle of lemons, ready to transform a new dish.