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15 february 2013

"The fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat," folk singers taught me when I was a child. Nevertheless, after taking several decades to live down this bit of lore, I eat lemons fairly regularly now. My favorite recipe is very simple: cut a lemon or two into extra-thin slices. Heat butter over high flame and blacken – well, basically, burn – the lemon slices. Fry a fish fillet or two in the resulting mess, and add a teaspoonful of capers. In this form, the lemons become highly edible: their acid tempered, but the oily butterness of their zest providing a perfect contrast to bland fish. The only caveat to keep in mind is that eating that much lemon will turn your urine, well, lemon-yellow, for the next day. And you don't want to try the recipe if you're allergic to Vitamin C.

If you have scurvy, though, my recipe will save your life. An entire chapter of Toby Sonneman's Lemon is devoted to the fruit's antiscorbutic history. Lemons have been vaguely associated with the promotion of health since the dawn of history. (Of course, so have almost all edible plants.) Claims for the astonishing powers of lemons reached their apogee during the height of the California lemon industry in the early 20th century, when marketers fell over themselves trying to think of what lemons could cure next. But despite their scattershot approach, lemons truly are packed with the absolutely necessary vitamin C. Soon after Hungarian chemist Albert Szent-Györgyi isolated vitamin C in 1928, however, even he fell prey to hyperbole, claiming in 1936 that lemons also contained something he called vitamin P. And maybe they do, but it's medically worthless.

Before Europeans craved lemons, Sonneman notes, they'd prized a lumpy, dry, truly inedible cousin fruit called the citron. You couldn't do much with a citron, but its aroma, and the oils from its rind, were so wonderful that classical civilizations fell in love with it. When true lemons arrived from Muslim cultures in the Middle Ages, they were all the more prized for their juice, which added some culinary uses to the general appeal of the fruit. Sonneman traces the progress of the lemon northwards, from the vast groves of Sicily and southern Italy where it still thrives, to the orangeries of early modern courts in colder countries. One section of Lemon deals with the fascinating history of Limone, the eponymous town in the north of Italy where lemons were grown commercially in the teeth of hard frosts – thanks to the expedient of protecting them in modular "lemon houses" during the winter months.

Sonneman's is not truly a "global" history, in that it ignores lemons in most Asian cultures. Lemon is not a dominant note in Asian cuisines (the unrelated lemongrass provides some of its flavors, if none of its colorfulness). But I have made Chinese recipes for lemon sauces and steamed lemon slices; if a foodstuff exists, there's a Chinese recipe for it. I'd like to know more about nonWestern uses for the lemon.

Sonneman, Toby. Lemon. London: Reaktion, 2012.