Food from trees: the lemon tree

Along with other citrus fruits, the lemon (Citrus limon) is one of the most widely consumed fruits in the world today. Apart from using the juice in all sorts of ways in the preparation of foods and cordials, lemon peels and the underlying white pith contain a number of health-giving substances.

The lemon tree is perhaps one of the most valuable additions to the kitchen garden. The first lemon trees to arrive at the Cape were imported from St Helena and planted in the Company’s garden by Jan Van Riebeeck. These were the predecessors of the rough-skinned lemon that we grow today and which is frequently used as a rootstock onto which other citrus varieties are grafted.

The lemon tree belongs to the family Rutaceae which includes about 800 species, nearly all which are characterised by oil glands on the leaves. Hold a lemon leaf up to the light and you will see tiny translucent dots. Interestingly, the various types of buchu (highly prized for their medicinal properties), the Cape Chestnut, White Ironwood, Horsewood and Knobwood are all included in this family.

By the way, the Citrus family is not indigenous to South Africa and is thought to have originated in South East Asia and China.

We are all familiar with at least some of the uses of lemons in the kitchen and in the home:

• A drizzle of lemon juice over freshly cut fruits and vegetables stops the cut surfaces turning brown and unsightly in the presence of air. The juice contains ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) and lycopene, amongst other important phytochemicals (phytonutrients), which are anti-oxidants.

• Lemon juice is a healthier addition to salad dressings, mayonnaise and marinades than vinegar as it has an alkalising effect on the blood. Many of us are wondering why we are feeling tired, have aching joints, are overweight and suffer from Candida. Doctors Robert Young and Shelly Redford explain in their book, The pH Miracle, the negative effects on one’s metabolism of having acidic body fluids.

• Lemon juice brings out flavours, adds tartness to titillate the taste buds and reduces the richness of meat and seafood dishes.

• Various drinks, iced teas, punches and the likes, wouldn’t be the same without a dash of lemon juice, or a sliver of the fruit.

• The acidity and the pectin contained in lemons is an integral part of the jam-making process.

• Lemon zest (peel) is used to flavour a variety of dishes (both sweet and savoury) and preserves. It is laden with aromatic oils which most of us have, at least once in our lives, squeezed into the flame of a candle for a mini fireworks display. It is the lemon peel which contains the highest concentration of phytochemicals (or phytonutrients).

• And, of course, lemon juice is a rich source of Vitamin C and, therefore, an important part of the diet. Hot lemon and honey served up to cold and flu patients is soothing and healing.

• A slice of lemon in a glass of water makes it that much easier to drink the daily ‘eight glasses’ recommended for good health.

• We haven’t mentioned the other uses of lemon juice as an astringent for the skin, as a bleach for nappies and perspiration stains, an addition to furniture polish, and a cleaner for brass and polish. It removes urine smells, makes hair shine, removes mildew and black ink and so the list goes on.

• There is a whole host of other medicinal benefits of the lemon. Those important phytochemicals have been shown to play a part in fighting cancer through their anti-oxidant properties, to prevent, and repair, damage to DNA, to destroy cancer cells and to prevent the spreading of tumours.

• The white pit, below the zest, contains rutin which strengthens the walls of blood vessels and helps to prevent heart and circulatory problems.

It makes you think that having your very own lemon tree would be a very good idea and that a lemon a day would do a lot for your health and well-being. Visit your local nursery once you have identified a protected spot in your garden. Lemon trees do not take kindly to strong, drying winds or frost, and prefer well-drained, light soils.

There are a number of cultivars from which to choose:

• The Cape rough-skinned lemon is not very sour, the trees start bearing when very young and have fruit on them nearly all year round.

• Eureka is a vigorous tree which bears large juicy fruits with very few pips.

• Meyer trees also bear large fruit, but only one crop a year.

• Villa Franca is similar to Eureka but also bears only one crop a year.

Other issues of Biophile have instructions for tree-planting. Just make sure that you make a shallow basin around the stem and water well when you plant the tree, and also when it is in flower and fruit. Composting and heavy mulching around the base of the tree help to prevent water loss through evaporation.

An added benefit of having a lemon tree in your garden is that you will be visited by the magnificent Citrus Swallowtail butterfly – Papillio demodocus demodocus – which will not only feast on the nectar from the fragrant flowers, but use the leaves as the nursery and feeding grounds for its young.

All great cooks use lemons. Here are a few recipes to try out this summer.
Please use organic ingredients whenever possible.

Lemon Curd

The most delicious spread for hot toast, scones and muffins. It tastes so good that you can eat it by the spoonful straight out of the jar. Use other citrus fruit or granadillas to make a change.

100g organic butter
200g organic sugar
4 organic eggs
Juice and grated rind of 4 lemons,
or 3 oranges and 1 lemon
or 2 lemons and the pulp of 4 granadillas

1. Melt butter and sugar in double boiler
2. Add well beaten eggs and juice and rind of lemons (and/or oranges or granadilla pulp).
3. Continue heating, stirring occasionally until the mixture has thickened like custard.
4. Pour into clean, heated jam jars.
5. Seal and store in a cool cupboard, or refrigerate.
6. Eat within a month. (Freezes well)

Lemon Cordial

A deliciously refreshing drink served with water or soda.
Juice of 10 to 12 lemons
Grated rind of 3 – 4 lemons
2½ kg organic sugar
1 packet tartaric acid (15ml or 1 tablespoon)
1 packet citric acid (15ml or 1 tablespoon)
1 packet Epsom salts (15ml or 1 tablespoon)
2 litres boiling water

1. Dissolve the sugar, tartaric acid, citric acid and Epsom salts in the boiling water.
2. Add the grated lemon rind and lemon juice. Mix together and allow to cool.
3. Pour the cordial into sterilised glass or plastic bottles and store in a refrigerator.
4. Dilute with water (or soda water) to taste.

Add ice cubes and a sprig of mint for a refreshing summer drink or add boiling water and a slice of lemon for a winter drink.

Lemon and basil risotto

125g organic butter
300g Arborio rice
1 onion – finely chopped
1 celery head, finely chopped
1 bunch celery leaves
1 clove garlic, minced
150 ml dry white wine
6 tablespoon fresh organic basil
1 litre vegetable stock
Juice and zest of 4 organic lemons
100 g grated parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat the stock and check for seasoning.
2. Gently sauté onions and garlic in butter until soft and add the garlic and chopped celery leaves and stir.
3. Add the rice and lightly sauté.
4. Add the white wine and allow to reduce.
5. Add the stock ladle for ladle, stirring constantly. Allow each ladle of stock to be absorbed before adding the next.
6. Constantly stir until the rice is cooked but still al dente.
7. Stir in most of the basil, lemon juice, zest and half the parmesan. Season to taste.
8. The consistency should be very creamy and soft.
9. Serve with remaining basil leaves and Parmesan cheese.

Lemon shortbread

100 g organic butter
90 g castor sugar
1 organic egg yolk
½ teaspoon vanilla
2 teaspoons lemon zest
1 teaspoon lemon juice
155 g cake flour

1. Preheat an oven to 150°C.
2. Cream the butter and sugar until light and creamy.
3. Add the egg yolk, vanilla, lemon zest and lemon juice, and mix well.
4. Sift in the flour and gently fold into the mixture.
5. Knead gently until the dough starts to come together.
6. Cover the dough in plastic and refrigerate for 2hours.
7. Lightly grease a baking tray.
8. Roll the dough out between two sheets of baking paper and even thickness.
9. Cut biscuits from dough and bake for 12 to 14 minutes.
10. Dust with castor sugar while still hot.
11. Let them cool slightly before transferring them to a cooling rack.

Preserved lemons

Delicious in salads, risottos, dressings, marinades and on sea food.
Fennel seeds
Coriander seeds
Cinnamon stick
Bay leaves
Sea salt
Large fat lemons with the leaves still attached

1. In a bowl mix the spices into the sea salt.
2. Cut a cross into the lemons – almost to the base, but so that the quarters stay together.
3. Push the seasoned salt into the lemon segments and pack the lemons as tightly as possible into an airtight jar.
4. The less space there is between the lemons the more attractive it will look and you won’t need to use so much salt.
5. The lemons will be ready after one month of preserving, and will last for about 2 years.

When required, the lemons are removed from the jar and all the white pith should be cut from the yellow peel or zest and discarded. The zest is then shredded, thinly slices of finely chopped.

Medicinal Plants of South Africa – Ben-Erik van Wyk, Bosch van Oudtshoorn, Nigel Gericke. Brize Publications 1997
Trees of Southern Africa, Volumes 1 and 3 – Eve Palmer and Norah Pitman. A A Balkema/Cape Town 1972
Food Plants of the World- Ben-Erik van Wyk. Briza Publications 2005
Butterfly Gardening in South Africa – Jill Reid. Briza Publications 2000
Fruit and Vegetable Gardening in South Africa – Zoe Gilbert and Jack Hadfield. Struik 1996
Raw Energy – Leslie and Susannah Kenton, Vermilion London 1994
Medicinal Seasonings: The Healing Power of Spices – Dr Keith Scott Medspice Press
The Green Cleaner – Barbara Lord S and W Books, Melbourne 1989
Chef Justin Patterson of Chef-on-Call,