After a year of astonishing vigour in their growth, our trees have produced a bumper crop of lemons, kumquats and satsumas. Question is, what to do with them all?
The kumquats glow like little lanterns among dark green foliage, and our satsuma tree is so weighed down by fruit that I’ve rigged up a temporary support for the branches.
The lemons have been coming on-stream since September, so the season has been quite long. I’ve used them in baking, grated the peel, added the juice to quinoa, lentil and pasta dishes… Now, though, I have to start preserving them or the rest of the crop will go to waste.
Being organic, with no layers of preservative polish (described by Helena Attlee as a “stinking mixture of wax, fungicide and ammonia”*), the lemons last only a few days once picked. Any longer and they turn a surreal range of colours before dissolving: fun to deal with when I don’t get them to the compost boxes in time.
So I’ve turned our kitchen into what the Italians refer to as a laboratorio. I came across this word for the first time in a coffee shop by Lake Garda last June. Along with tiny cups of espresso we tasted pieces of candied citrus peel dipped in dark chocolate – the perfect pick-me-up any time, anywhere. They were made, we heard, in the laboratorio next door.
For the past few days, I’ve been experimenting, trying to find ways to keep a hold of our glorious citrus, full of essential oil in the skins, bursting with flavour, cascades of pips and astonishing amounts of juice.
The marmalade-making is coming along, slowly. Delia Smith* has a point: arguably, marmalade is best made in small batches. In any case I don’t have a decent steel pan that can take more than about 3lbs of fruit, so production is slow and steady rather than spectacular. After hours of painstaking slicing and juicing, wrapping pips and innards in muslin, boiling and tasting – plus adding a heart-stopping amount of sugar – the end product is beautiful: fragrant slivers of lemon peel with a satisfying bite suspended in a delicate lemon-flavoured jelly.
I’m also trying my hand at preserving lemons, following a recipe by Sophie Grigson*. In Egypt we usually preserve small lemons, about the size of limes, rather than the “Italian” variety. The process is far from complicated, but this batch may be accident-prone: checking the level of brine solution in the sealed jar, I could hear gas escaping and see bubbles rising – so in the interests of avoiding an explosion down the line, I’ve covered the jar with a double layer of muslin and weighted it down. I’m checking daily to see if there’s a new build-up.
Finally I squeezed more lemons and froze the juice in ice-trays, before popping the cubes into plastic bags in the freezer for future use. Meanwhile, the peel is in the process of being candied (requiring more mountains of sugar!) This is a nostalgic trip back to Christmases past when I would spend aeons helping my mother prepare cakes and puddings by cutting up gorgeous mounds of orange, lemon and lime peel – and sample them whenever I thought she wasn’t looking.
The process takes a few days and multiple boilings: Again, I’m in uncharted waters here, disconcerted by widely different methods depending on which book I refer to. I’m going with an antiquated British government publication*. Fingers crossed!