In fact, lemons are an ancient hybrid of citron and lime, and have been cultivated in Southeast Asia for 2,500 years. They flourished in ancient China and India and traveled to Persia and the Southern Levant in the Fifth to Fourth Centuries BC, then on to the Western Mediterranean about two hundred years later in the Early Roman Period. Scientists discovered the first evidence of lemons in Italy on an archeological dig in the Roman Coliseum. Interestingly, the citron preceded lemons on the journey along the Silk Road, while oranges arrived centuries later.
Apparently, lemons were initially viewed as “elite products” only available to people of high status, rich enough to include them in private gardens. They also appeared in the art of the ancient Middle East and the Roman Empire, in wall paintings, reliefs, mosaics and coins. The artistic value of lemons is not at all surprising, as their exquisite oval shape and intense yellow color form a timeless design, simple and eternal in its elegance. It seems that in the Mediterranean region, lemons were first appreciated for their beauty, and perhaps also for their pleasing aroma and the charm of the sun-loving and glossy-leafed evergreen trees which produce them. Renaissance still life painters certainly loved to include lemons among the carefully arranged vignettes of flowers, fruits, and even insects so typical of that era’s appreciation of the natural world of the senses
It was not until the 1800s that large groves of lemon trees were planted in California and Florida for commercial purposes. This sun loving subtropical tree thrives in temperatures from 77-86 degrees and is very sensitive to frost. Today, in addition to America, the big producers of commercial lemons include Italy, Uruguay, India, Mexico, China and Argentina.
Diligent home gardeners in the right climate zones can raise lemon trees in their yards, and the reward will be a year-round bonanza of beauty: shining dark green leaves, fragrant white blossoms welcoming the bees and plump yellow lemons to enhance your home cooking, both savory and sweet. And you can avoid the hefty prices for lemons in the supermarkets.
The demand for lemons certainly increased as home cooks along the Silk Road discovered over the centuries that lemons are more than pretty little aromatic orbs. Lemons are now a foundational ingredient of Mediterranean as well as East Asian cuisine. Today, one cannot imagine eating a Middle Eastern, Greek, Italian or French meal that contains no lemon. And Tea Parties around the world would not be Tea Parties at all without Lemon Tea Bread and Lemon Curd to grace warm buttery scones enjoyed with steaming cups of fragrant tea.
Lemons are like the very best kind of neighbor. They are quiet and lovely, yet always welcome. Their cheerful yellow color harmonizes with every other color in the spectrum. Never obtrusive, lemons are always ready to help. They are filled with Vitamin C to protect your health, happy to clean and shine your skin, your hair and even your kitchen sink, and when you are feeling low on a cold winter night, lemons are ready to mingle their juice with honey in a cup of hot water to soothe your sore throat. Lemons are team players who never push themselves out in front. In every season they are a cook’s best friend. For a savory meal, they blend in with salt, garlic, pepper and every kind of herb. In spring and summer, lemons mix with olive oil, tomatoes and all the fresh vegetables from the garden. And they undergo a magical transformation when their strong sour juice is combined with sugar for an infinite number of sweet desserts. Even their peel can be grated to add a subtle undertone of clean, bright flavor that makes any dish somehow more wonderful.
I have not forgotten that May is the month for all sorts of festivities with Mother’s Day, this year on May 9, at the top of the list. Our website and blogs are filled with ideas and treats to make your mother feel special, starting with our “Mother’s Day Tea” in the calendar section of the “Tea Book” chapter of our website. This elegant menu, developed by my co-author Kathleen, includes the classic sweet and tart Tea Party accompaniment, Lemon Curd. You can make your own Lemon Curd and Lemon Tea Bread using freshly squeezed lemon juice and just-grated lemon zest. Both of these recipes are available for free in the “Tea Menu Basics” chapter of this website. I recently made the Lemon Tea Bread, which makes two loaves. These make wonderful gifts. I gave one away and served the other, dressed up a little, at our weekend family meal. I added a lemon juice and powdered sugar glaze and sprinkled freshly grated lemon zest mixed with yellow sanding sugar crystals decoratively on top.
And since we were able to find some luscious red raspberries from Watsonville, California, (Kathleen’s hometown,) in our local grocery store, I made some quick and festive Raspberry Coulis to pour over the top of the Lemon Tea Bread, served with vanilla ice cream. To make your own Raspberry Coulis, just microwave ½ cup sugar with 2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice and 1 tablespoon of water for about 30 seconds and stir to make sure the sugar is dissolved. Put 12 ounces of fresh raspberries into a blender, pour the hot syrup over, add a tablespoon of Chambord if you have any, and blend. Raspberry Coulis is beautiful served in a clear glass or crystal pitcher, and like so many other special treats, it is enhanced by the invisible presence of lemon juice.
Savory dishes are also frequently enlivened by the secret presence of lemon juice and lemon zest. One of my favorite lemon-inspired savory dishes is the world-famous Greek Lemon Soup, Avgolemono, which would make a lovely focal point for a Mother’s Day lunch. Asparagus spears with a lemon juice and olive oil vinaigrette including lemon zest and fresh herbs would be a perfect complement to this late spring menu. If your mother really loves lemons, I recommend my favorite lemon pie, Lemon Chess Pie. The recipe for this old Southern classic, with the addition of toasted coconut, is available in my November 2019 blog.
Our website includes many other lemon-inspired recipes, including Victoria Sponge Cake with Lemon Curd Filling in the Classic British Tea in our “World of Tea Parties” chapter. And if you are uncertain about measurements and equipment related to working with lemons, and what exactly lemon zest actually is, you are welcome to read “About Lemons,” in the “Tea Menu Basics” chapter following the “Scones and Tea Breads” section.
As you prepare for Mother’s Day and other late spring and early summer celebrations in the month of May, don’t forget the aesthetic value of lemons. Be sure to read Kathleen’s blog this month, “The Darling Buds of May.” She includes beautiful photographs of flower arrangements, many including branches of lemon leaves, and shows you how to incorporate floral arrangements into table settings for tea parties and other special gatherings.
Finally, I’m happy to share a lemon-themed treat that my husband recently found in, of all places, Costco: Lemoncello Chocolate Almonds produced by the Sconza Family of Oakdale, California. These delicious pale-yellow morsels are described on the package as “Roasted Almonds Covered in White Chocolate and Lemon Cream.” I can testify that they are delicious and quite addictive with a bright lemon flavor. And they are truly beautiful. The additional beauty of these elegant little candies is that the host or hostess does not have to do anything but share them with their grateful guests, although I am also picturing them as party favors tied up in little mesh bags with yellow ribbons for Afternoon Tea or any event that needs to be especially memorable.
Greek Lemon Soup
Avgolemono, or “Egg-Lemon,” so popular in Greece, is actually of Sephardic Jewish origin. It is based on the culinary technique of combining egg yolk and lemon added to broth as a thickening agent. This method is also used in Arabic, Turkish, Balkan and Italian cuisine. As in so many other Mediterranean and Middle Eastern savory dishes, this delicious soup relies on lemon also to combine with vegetables and herbs to create a pleasantly complex flavor. Avgolemono can be prepared as a vegetarian soup, or with the addition of shredded chicken, it can be the central dish at a hearty meal. It is wonderful served with crusty bread, a little dish of olives and maybe a Greek salad with some Feta cheese.
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- ½-1 cup finely chopped carrots
- ½-1 cup finely chopped celery
- ½-1 cup finely chopped green onions
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 8 cups chicken broth
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 cup rice
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- 2 cooked chicken breasts, shredded (optional)
- ½ cup lemon juice, from about 2 lemons
- 2 large eggs
- Chopped fresh parsley for garnish
Special equipment: large stock pot, wooden spoon, medium sized mixing bowl, hand-held or electric whisk, ladle
Makes: about 8 servings
- In a large stockpot on medium heat, saute the chopped carrots, celery, green onions and garlic in olive oil until soft, about 10-20 minutes, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon.
- Add the chicken broth and bay leaves and heat to boiling. Add the rice and salt and pepper (about ½ teaspoon each,) turn the heat down to medium low, and simmer for about 20 minutes until the rice is tender. Add the shredded chicken. Add more salt and pepper to taste if you wish.
- Combine the lemon juice and eggs in a medium sized mixing bowl and whisk to combine thoroughly. While whisking, add 2 ladles of hot broth from the soup. Continue whisking.
- Stir the lemon, egg and broth mixture carefully into the soup. Turn off the heat and serve immediately, garnished with chopped parsley.