When I think of lemons, I think of Italy: my favourite country to travel to, with a cuisine that celebrates these beautiful citrus fruit in every way. There is a wonderful book, written by Helena Attlee – The Land Where Lemons Grow – an exploration of both Italy and its extraordinary production of citrus fruit, which I read a few years ago. I’ve since re-read it several times, to squeeze out every last word of this evocative, informative odyssey into my two great passions: Italy and lemons.
I first encountered real Italian lemons as a child when I visited family friends in Northern Italy one summer. All along the terrace, which stretched the length of the front of the house, were huge terracotta pots holding lemon trees, covered in deep green leaves and hanging with bright yellow fruit. I had seen a million lemons in fruit bowls before but I had never seen a lemon growing from a tree. When I picked one, I saw the skin was thick and covered in deep pores, unlike the smooth wax-dipped British imports. Just holding the fruit in my hands made the citrus oils seep out onto my skin, perfuming them with a fragrance of zest, sunshine and freshness.
Italians have known these pleasures for thousands of years and although we often associate citrus growing with southern areas like the Amalfi coast, I later learnt in Attlee’s book that historically a thriving business also had operated close to where I was, around Lake Garda. Here the cooler climates produced lemons with an acidity which appealed to the Northern European market. The reason the lemons I saw were growing in pots, was not just a way to decorate the terrace, it was so the trees could be moved, when the temperatures drop dramatically in the winter, into purpose built limonaia or insulated lemon houses.
My next experience of Italian lemons came many years later when I was living in Florence, in an apartment that overlooked the Boboli gardens, which had once belonged to the Medici family, who started one of the great citrus collections during the 16thC, the evidence of which still exists there today. As well as building lemon houses and displaying their collections, during the Italian Renaissance, there had been a fascination for lemon chimeras – those with bizarre forms; finger shaped varieties or with strange protuberances like limbs; gargantuan specimens and those with ribbed skin. Fortunately scientific life sized wax models were commissioned at the time, some of which are still displayed at The Natural History museum on Via La Pira in Florence.
We have grown so used to perfect uniformity and ubiquitous net bags containing lemons in supermarkets, but I now specifically seek out sources of Italian lemons which are displayed in just their packing boxes with stalks and leaves still attached. These are knobbly and irregular shaped and often much larger than the tiny supermarket varieties. If you gently press your fingernail into the skin, a burst of citrus oil will be released – a good test to check if they have been wax dipped or not. Waxing is a commercial method of preservation which covers the scent of the zest and kills the natural fragrance of the lemon’s skin.
Cedro, or Citron, Attlee tells us, are one of the first species of citrus fruit. They epitomise these organic characteristics, with a bizarrely ginormous size, uneven round shape and “saturated in essential oil..its surface is sculpted into ridges like a downland landscape, or raised in terrible carbuncles..It smells stronger, wilder and more exotic that a lemon”. These are technically not ‘lemons’ but another species of citrus fruit and are used predominantly for their zest and pith. The only place I have yet encountered these in London is at the wonderful cheese shop and delicatessen in Marylebone, La Fromagerie. Read my recipe for Cedro risotto here.
I now seek out any special Italian lemons I can find (usually those imported from the Amalfi coast and sold at good quality greengrocers) and always have them on hand for cooking with, starting with a slice of lemon in hot water to drink when I get up. Because they aren’t wax coated, I tend to keep them in the fridge, especially in warmer temperatures, as it prevents the skin from becoming mouldy in the fruit bowl. When life gives me lemons, these are two of the recipes I turn to to celebrate with: spaghetti al limone, the simplest of dishes which is only possible with proper, Amalfi lemons whose zest and juice are fragrant and pure; and lemon tart, a circle of sunshine inside a pastry shell. And when I want to really embellish it, I top it with fluffy Italian meringue.
Spaghetti al Limone
2 Amalfi lemons
4tbsp extra virgin olive oil
20g flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
Grated parmesan (about 50g)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Add the spaghetti and cook for 10-12 minutes (or according to packet instructions) until al dente.
When the pasta is cooked, drain it, keeping back a few tablespoons of the cooking water in the pan (this will help create a luscious sauce).
Pour the olive oil over the pasta and mix well. Grate the zest of both the lemons, then squeeze the juice over the spaghetti. Add the parsley and grated Parmesan and mix well. Season with salt and pepper and serve.
Lemon meringue tart
This recipe uses the Italian method for cooking the egg whites, which produces the fluffiest meringue. Overall, it’s a more failsafe version of making meringue – which can often be tricky. The whites are cooked by pouring hot sugar syrup into the bowl while whisking, and all it needs is a short time in the oven to produce golden-brown peaks and to firm it up enough so it can be sliced with a knife. If you’ve never made it before, I would recommend using a thermometer, just to see what the syrup looks like at the correct temperature.
And the beauty of making tarts is that you can make the pastry and line the shell the day before, which almost halves the preparation time.
Makes one 23cm tart
For the pastry:
plain flour 140g
unsalted butter 75g, very cold and cut into small pieces
icing sugar 40g
egg yolk 1 (save the white for the meringues)
cold water 1-2 tbsp
flour for rolling
For the filling:
fresh lemon juice 200ml
caster sugar 160g
egg yolks 3 (save the whites for the meringue)
unsalted butter 25g, cut into small pieces
For the meringue:
caster sugar 200g
golden syrup 1 tbsp
egg whites 4, at room temperature
cream of tartar 1 tsp
To make the pastry, sift the flour into a bowl with a pinch of salt. Add the butter and mix together, using a food processor or your fingertips, until the mixture resembles rough breadcrumbs. Sift in the sugar and mix briefly. Stir in the egg yolk and just enough water to bring the mixture together to form a firm dough. If I’m using a food processor, I often do this final part by hand, to make sure I don’t add too much water and make a sticky dough. The firmer the dough, the shorter the pastry will be. Wrap it in clingfilm and pat it into a disc shape. Let it rest in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
(If you’re making this the day before, you can then roll out the pastry and line the tart shell. Keep covered in the fridge until ready to use.)
Heat the oven to 170C/gas mark 3. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the pastry and line the tart shell. Press it into the bottom corners and trim off any excess around the sides. (Save this for later in case you need to patch up any cracks.)
Line the pastry case with baking parchment and fill with baking beans (they’re not essential, so don’t worry if you don’t have any, but this can help prevent shrinkage). Bake for 20 minutes then remove the paper and beans, if using, and return to the oven for another 5-10 minutes or until the base is golden and feels firm and sandy. Remove and cool on a wire rack.
To make the filling, put lemon juice, sugar and cornflour into a small pan and whisk to combine. Bring to the boil, stirring, while the mixture thickens. Remove from the heat and whisk in the egg yolks, then add the butter, stirring until it melts and the mixture becomes smooth. Pour into the tart shell and allow it to cool and set while you make the meringue.
To make the meringue, preheat the oven to 150C/gas mark 2. Put the sugar and golden syrup in a small sau cepan and just cover with water. Heat, undisturbed, until all the sugar has dissolved. Turn up the heat and boil, without stirring, until the syrup registers 120C on a thermometer (firm- ball stage). This will take a couple of minutes, so in the meantime you can get the egg whites whisking.
Whisk the egg whites with a mixer on low speed until starting to get foamy, then add the salt and cream of tartar. Increase the speed to medium, and whisk just until soft peaks are starting to form. Turn off the mixer at this stage while the syrup reaches the right heat.
When the syrup is ready, start whisking the whites again on a low speed while pouring hot syrup down the side of the bowl in a slow, steady stream. When all the syrup is added, increase the speed to high and continue whisking for about 10 minutes, or until the bowl feels cool to the touch. During this time, the whites are cooking in the heat of the syrup and they will become voluminous, thick and smooth looking.
Spread the meringue all over the top of the tart right up to the sides, and make some little peaks on the surface with a knife for decoration.
Cook for 15 minutes, or until the top has slightly browned and the meringue feels a little firm. Remove and allow the tart to cool slightly before eating.