Some years ago I planted a young lemon tree in a sunny spot in the garden of my ancient house in Andalusia. For a couple of years the tree grew rather diffidently, yielding two modest lemons the first year and three the second. Then, suddenly, this hitherto bashful little tree began to grow with almost indecent haste: an explosion of shiny evergreen leaves hiding wickedly spiky branches, in a state of run-away inflation reminiscent of the Argentine economy.
The following spring our once maidenly tree was positively matronly with seductive-scented white blossom busy with bees. That winter the matriarch bore fruit. Such fruit! Big fat brilliant yellow lemons which when cut and squeezed yielded whole cups-full of sharply fragrant silver juice. Organic fruit with unwaxed skin and natural zest that made a mockery of dull, diminutive, pesticide-laden shop and supermarket lemons. Fruit gleaming with natural health. Body-builder lemons exciting genuine admiration when displayed to visitors - but also a certain ironic underlay of prurience about their exceptional physical development.
In my part of Spain, Andalusia, lemons are not left lying in the street, If I wanted to emulate Chris Stewart, I would have to carry my lemons out into the street, line them up carefully with the wheels of my car… and suffer a terrible sense of waste as I drove forward crushing the fruit. In frugal Andalusia we are not much in the habit of driving over our lemons. What we do successfully with lemons, on the other hand, is pickle them – Moroccan-style.
Pickled lemons – lemons deeply but asymmetrically cut to remain whole, bodily packed with salt, crammed tightly into preserving jars and topped up with further quantities of lemon juice – are one of the Mediterranean diet’s great life-enhancers. They add a fourth dimension of strong but subtle flavours to any three-dimensional assemblage of chicken, pork, lamb, kid or even fish. Purists retain the zesty lemon skins only – discarding the flesh and the juice – garnishing the meat to be cooked with delicate lemon crescents inserted in sensitive places.
As a dedicated non-purist myself, and frugal to boot, I put all three elements to use – skin, flesh and juice – though not always on the same occasion. The flesh of pickled lemons combines meltingly with black or green olives in any rich stew. The juice lends a hint of orientalist barbarity to the plainest dish of boiled or steamed or saffron-infused rice.
Packed in a well-sterilised glass jar and kept in the fridge, pickled lemons will last a year at least. In January 2015, while we were in Spain to preserve this year’s crop, we roasted a chicken with pickled lemons from the 2014 crop. They were as succulent as ever.
Don’t worry if you haven’t home-grown lemons of your own to brag about. Despite what I said about them, shop and supermarket lemons will really do the job just as well!. Buy a big bag – you’ll need up to a couple lemons for topping-up juice for every lemon you pickle. Take a sharp knife, have ready plenty of rock salt and have a go yourself.