The month of June 2013 was the wettest in Sydney since 2007. With double the historical average, homes were left soggy, damp, and leaking, but many of our gardens flourished. In particular, citrus trees were delighted with the downfall, setting many fruit in the conditions. Fortunately, the very dry and mild July has allowed the fruit to grow and ripen, and some of my friends have bumper crops of citrus, branches groaning under the weight.
My lovely friends Anthea and Gus have a couple of healthy citrus trees in their backyard, and put out a call for friends to come and help themselves to oranges and lemons (and they’re nowhere near the bells of St Clemens). Prior to my mountains writing retreat, figuring that cooking was a necessary and enjoyable distraction, I raided the lemon tree to transform some of the harvest into delicious treats for friends and family.
The three most traditional ways of keeping a lemon for future use are through the preserving agents of salt, sugar or fat. In Moroccan cuisine, lemon quarters are rubbed vigorously with salt and packed into sterilised jars with spices (cinnamon, coriander seed, bay leaf) for the traditional L’hamd marakad (literally ‘sleeping lemons’). I used Stephanie Alexander’s recipe from her iconic A Cooks Companion – you can look it up via this link. I won’t be able to open these beauties for another 2 or so weeks, but they should last the rest of the year. Once ready, the flesh is scraped off and you only use the rind sparingly to add complexity to savoury dishes (tagines, soups, etc).
Preserving fruit with sugar will give you a jam or marmalade. Apparently the word marmalade comes from the Portuguese word marmelada, which means preserved quince, and the first written usage of the word is from a play published in 1521. Of course in Portuguese tradition, marmelada is the famous quince paste, a delicious accompaniment to a cheese course. Coincidentally (before even knowing this), I actually flavoured this year’s batch with quince jelly, a delicious by-product from some baked quinces. When you bake quinces in the oven (with water or verjuice, sugar and spices), at the end of the cooking process there is a delicious, sweet, quince-flavoured liquor that remains. Because of the high pectin content of the quinces, you can boil this down to a concentrate that sets naturally: hey presto, quince jelly with no horrid gelatine! Here’s my effort:
Last year’s marmalade was quite different to this batch. I used a more simple approach via the BBC Good Food site, but with some important modifications. I added more fruit (1.2kg), reduced the sugar to 1.5kg, added in 4 tablespoons of quince, 3 passionfruit and a vanilla pod for some different flavours. So far the reaction from punters has been very good!
The final, most perishable and indulgent form of preserving fruit flavour is in fat: specifically, butter. Lemon butter, or lemon curd, is a wonderfully versatile ingredient: you can spread it on toast, use it as a pie filling (I made a blackberry tart with lemon curd last year) and even make a delightfully retro “tropical meringue roulade” (with lemon butter, whipped cream and a brown-sugar meringue, all rolled up together).
According to the British Food website, lemon butter has been mentioned in cookbooks from the mid-19th century, and prior to that it was referred to as “lemon cheese”. My partner’s mother Betty always refers to it as “lemon cheese” rather than lemon butter or lemon curd. Apparently there’s also a difference between the North and South in whether one says “cheese” or “curd”. In the past I’ve made lemon butter on the stove by incorporating butter, slowly whisking it in on a double boiler; I’ve made it in the microwave (shudder – but it worked as a fast solution); and this time I followed a really wonderful Lemon & Passionfruit Curd recipe by one of my contemporary food heroes, Poh Ling Yeow. It has worked a treat, and just as Poh says, it looks curdled at first, and as you stir there is a miraculous transformation into silky smooth deliciousness.
So that’s this year’s lemon preserving efforts. In total, from a bag of about 40 or so lemons I made 10 jars of marmalade, 8 jars of lemon curd and two jars of preserved lemons. It’s a great way of continuing the lemon bounty for some months to come: you avoid buying commercial products that are loaded with extra artificial rubbish; you are using a local, sustainable product without a great deal of outlay; and you can give them away as gifts to your loved ones!!! Last pics are of my lovely friends, picking the bounty from THE tree of plenty. Thanks, gorgeous ones!