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Making preserved lemons
Did you know that, if you live in Europe, the lemon you buy in December has much less of a carbon footprint than it will have in June?
Perhaps you don't think of lemons as having a 'season' - they are now available in supermarkets and greengrocers all year round - but at some time in late Spring, supplies stop coming from Europe and the main supplier becomes South Africa.
November until January is the season for European citrus fruits.
I ought the lemons in this photo right at the beginning of the season - a box of organic lemons from Spain, still green when they arrived, gradually turning yellow over the next month.
I bought them specifically to preserve in salt - lemons and salt are two of my favourite ingredients but I do not like the preserved lemons that you can buy in supermarkets as I find they have a chemically after taste.
Preserved lemons are one of the things I regularly crave and therefore one of the things I bother to make. They are also an essential ingredient in many of the North African recipes I love and a great way of using up every single bit of the lemon without waste.
They take a month to mature so if you start them now they will be ready to add a bit of brightness to January.
- A wide necked pickling jar sterilised (dishwasher is fine)
- Something heavy which will fit through the neck of the jar and keep the lemons under the liquid. (I use a beach pebble which I also put through the dishwasher)
- 8-10 smallish organic lemons (if you are going to eat the rind you don't want it sprayed or waxed)
- Flaked sea salt (a lot)
- Olive oil to cover
- Optional - 2 teaspoons black pepper, 2 teaspoons coriander seeds, 3 fresh bay leaves.
- Take each lemon, stand it on end and slice down vertically to about 1 cm from the base.
- Turn by 90 degrees and cut again so that you have a deep cross cut.
- Cup the lemon in your hand so it opens out and then stuff as much salt as you can inside before squashing it shut and putting it into the jar.
- Do this with all but two of the lemons - squashing them down hard as you go so that the juice begins to come out.
- Put the weight in on top and leave somewhere for 48 hours so more juice comes out. Take out the weight, juice your remaining lemons and add to the jar.
- Hopefully the lemons are now covered by the juice - if not then either squash some more or add more juice. Add in the pepper corns etc. at this point if you are using.
- Gently add a layer of olive oil to the top to provide a seal and carefully replace your weight.
- Leave for a month before eating. They will keep for a year in the fridge.
Using the lemons
In his novel Palace Walk, the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz writes of a breakfast eaten on a Cairo rooftop;
‘The mother carried in the large tray of food and places it on the cloth. In the centre of the gleaming copper tray was a large oval dish filled with fried beans and eggs. On one side loaves of flat bread were piled. On the other side were arranged small plates with cheese, pickled lemons and peppers as well as salt, cayenne and black pepper’.
Preserved lemons are central to many recipes in North Africa - notably Moroccan tagines - and South East Asia - particularly Cambodian soups.
More surprisingly - though not at all surprising really if you think of the seasonality of lemons before C20th - they were an important luxury ingredient in C18th Europe, used particularly in fish dishes and threaded, alongside lard, through the flesh of poultry.