The origin of lemons is unknown but it’s pretty much agreed they were initially grown in Assam (an area in northeast India), northern Burma or China. Somewhere along the line it turned into a hybrid between the bitter orange (sour orange) and citron, which is your basic granddaddy of the citrus family, with its thick bumpy rind and sour flavor.
The fruit has come a long way since then, making it among the world’s favourite citrus. Arab traders brought lemons into the Middle East and Africa sometime later as it made its way to southern Italy around 200 B.C. and was cultivated in Egypt. Citron paved the way for all citrus since it arrived in the Mediterranean around the late first century BC. These days, the citron, which contains very little juice or pulp, is usually baked and invisibly into fruitcakes.
Slow to catch on, for over a millennium citron and lemon were the only citrus fruits known from the Mediterranean basin. Lemons, though commonplace and abundant today, were actually rare in ancient Rome, prized by the elite, and represented high social status.
Initially, lemons weren’t widely grown for food or seasoning but largely an ornamental plant, like tomatoes, until about the 10th century. The Arabs introduced the lemon into Spain in the 11th century, and by then they had become a frequent crop in the Mediterranean area. And traveled with the Crusades during their journeys, which makes its way to England in the early 16th century. The name”lemon” first appeared around 1350-1400, from the old French word limon, and was Anglicized in England. The Italian word limone dates back to the Arabic and Persian word limun.
Thanks to Christopher Columbus, who brought them to Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic) in 1493, these new trees which produced odd yellow sour fruit, spread throughout the New World but were used mainly as an ornamental and medicinal plant because of their very sour taste. (Apparently nobody had figured out how to make lemon meringue pie yet).
While foodie president Thomas Jefferson boasted over one thousand fruit trees in his orchards, there’s no record he ever experimented with citrus, although he should have struck them in his travels to France, but the Virginia climate simply didn’t lend itself to citrus. However, lemons have been grown in California by the mid-1700s, and in tropical Florida from the 1800s, when they became a hit in cooking and flavoring.
Though lemon flavored puddings and custards have been appreciated for centuries, our favorite lemon meringue pie as we know it today is a 19th-century item. The oldest recorded recipe was attributed to a Swiss baker named Alexander Frehse. There’s also speculation that a British botanist could have chased it about 1875, but whoever guessed it up sure did us all a favor.
Over 200 or so varieties of the lemon have evolved over the last three centuries. The Meyer lemon is named after Frank N. Meyer, who first introduced it to the USA in 1908, after he found it rising in Peking, China and brought back to the U.S.. A favorite of pastry chefs for tarts and sorbets, it is actually a cross between a lemon and an orange, with much of the U.S. crop grown in California’s Central Valley, and some in Florida and Texas. Unlike regular lemons, Meyer lemons aren’t selected green and cured after harvesting but are picked when fully ripe. They bear fruit yearlong, are generally less sour and their pulp is orange-colored.
Many of us learned in grammar school that lemons and limes averted a disease known as scurvy, which Scottish surgeon James Lind discovered in 1747, urging the British Royal Navy to execute in order to save countless sailors. (thus the nickname”limey” for a Brit, which sounded better than”lemony”). This opened the door to the value of Vitamin C and its significance in nutrition.
It’s hard to imagine life without the lemon. But you enjoy them, their bright yellow color, tangy taste and fragrant odor enhance our lives in many different ways, and if you are fortunate enough to live in a place where they grow, you can indulge for practically pennies. So, as the old saying goes,”When life hands you a lemon…”