While some people are house proud, I’d probably be better described as lemon happy. Right outside my kitchen window stands a Meyer lemon tree. It’s not too tall -- maybe 10 feet at most. Nor, to be honest, is it particularly beautiful. It’s slightly off balance, with an aspect that is more shrubby than sculptural.
But what fruit! The Meyer lemon has a taste that is like a combination of regular lemon and some other softer, sweeter citrus, such as orange or tangerine, with maybe a little of the brassy quality of a pink grapefruit. For me, this is the taste of winter in California.
And though I’ve always prized the fruit from my tree, this year I’ve gone completely around the bend, counting and hoarding lemons like Humphrey Bogart in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”
For years, I have nurtured my little Meyer tree as if it were some prized bonsai. The first several summers we lived in this house, it was terribly afflicted with whiteflies. So every other week, I’d go out with a sprayer full of insecticidal soap and wash off the leaves, one at a time.
This babying has been repaid a hundredfold. What my Meyer lacks in eye appeal it more than makes up for in fecundity. Every year, the tree becomes so laden with fruit it sometimes seems the lemons outnumber the leaves. I can’t find enough ways to use them all. In fact, in late spring, I’ve taken to setting out boxes of the fruit at the curb, free to anyone passing by.
But there will be no lemon giveaways this year, I can promise you. Last summer I pruned my Meyer, a painful but necessary action. With improved air circulation and better exposure to sunshine, the tree’s future looks brighter and healthier. That’s good for both of us in the long term, but disastrous in the immediate. Decimated by the pruning, my normal bounty of fruit has become sparse.
Hoarding the gold
For the first time, I have to think seriously about how I’m going to use my Meyers. I have only 100 lemons on my tree (yes, an improbably exact number, but I have counted them twice). Using one of these to clean off the cutting board -- something I have always done without thought -- is out of the question. Even squeezing them over fresh fish seems profligate.
Like the old country song says: “You don’t miss water till the well runs dry.” There is nothing like sudden poverty to make you focus on what really matters. With only 100 lemons to last the season, I have to concentrate on what it is that makes Meyer lemons so special and how I can best cook to emphasize that.
Though we may think of the Meyer as having been discovered by the Chez Panisse crowd, it has been treasured by California foodies since shortly after its arrival at the turn of the 20th century. Granted, it was given a rebirth when Alice Waters and her crew adopted it as a signature ingredient back in the 1970s, but it was actually discovered in China -- the home of so many fine citrus fruits -- and brought back to the United States by a Department of Agriculture plant breeder named Frank Meyer (my father-in-law’s name, a coincidence?).
It was a wildly popular backyard fruit in the teens and ‘20s, but it was found to be a carrier of a virulent citrus disease with the operatic name tristeza and so was virtually eradicated. Almost all of the Meyers you’ll find today are from an improved, virus-resistant variety developed at UC Riverside in the 1950s.
Meyers differ from common grocery store lemons -- predominantly the Eureka or Lisbon -- in a couple of ways. First, they look different. They are rounder, without the pronounced point at the blossom end that other lemons have. Their golden-orange peel is thinner and more delicate, with an almost baby-skin softness (at least until the end of the harvest, when it can get puffy and coarse). They are noticeably juicier: 40% juice by weight as compared with Eureka’s 30%.
But taste is the important thing. Meyers are sweeter and less acidic than other lemons, with a flavor that is much more nuanced.
While most lemons give a lightning bolt of acidity, Meyers are more like California’s soft, golden winter sunshine -- bright, yes, but not brutal.
Botanists lean toward a lineage for Meyers that includes either oranges or tangerines, and there’s evidence for that theory in the fruit’s flavor. As Harold McGee points out in “On Food and Cooking,” Meyer lemons share with most citrus the distinctive flavor notes given by the chemicals limonene (citrus) and pinene (pine), but also have a distinct whiff of thymol (thyme). The only other popular citrus with this herbal note is the tangerine.
You’ll find traces of this in the juice, but as with most citrus, it’s most pronounced in the peel. Meyer skins are rich in oil and transmit the fruit’s distinctive floral quality well, so when cooking with them, I like to use preparations that emphasize that -- favoring fragrance over plain old tartness. The best way to do that is to simmer the zests in sugar syrup or cream. In just a short time you’ll start to smell that irresistible perfume.
That’s the secret behind this granita, which perfectly captures that distinctive Meyer flavor. If you’ve ever wondered whether one variety of lemon could really taste all that different from any other, try this. It couldn’t be easier to make. You don’t even need an ice cream freezer -- because of its relatively high sugar content, the mixture will form a perfectly fine-grained slush just stirred with a fork.
When these lemons are cooked with cream, the effect is slightly different. In this panna cotta, the Meyer stays in the background, waiting until the very end to assert itself. It rounds out the sweet, slightly green nuttiness of the pistachio without overwhelming it.
And if you really want to see what a Meyer can do with the flavor of butter, try using it in this lemon curd, which I make three or four times every winter. Rich and creamy with a perfect balance between lemon and butter, it can be used on scones or toast or, my personal favorite, as a filling for a tart.
Because of Meyer lemons’ relative lack of acidity, I don’t like to use them in savory dishes -- at least not by themselves. Make a vinaigrette with a Meyer lemon and you’ll find yourself admiring the nuance, but noticing that something important is missing. That something is zip. If you use a Meyer lemon this way, back it up with a little Champagne or Sherry vinegar.
If you don’t have a tree in your backyard (or a neighbor’s) and you don’t go to farmers markets, you may have a little trouble finding Meyer lemons. Though they are popular almost to the point of cliche in California restaurants, they have not been widely adopted by mainstream agriculture. Both Frieda’s and Melissa’s, Southern California-based specialty produce companies, supply them to some supermarket chains.
But the surest way to acquire a Meyer lemon is to plant a tree. Fortunately, that’s not difficult. They’re widely available at nurseries, and I’ve even seen them at hardware stores. They grow easily, with hardly any care. You can even plant them in patio pots. A little water, some sporadic feeding (and, yes, the occasional leaf shampoo), and you’ll have Meyers for months. You’re best off waiting until spring to plant them, once the ground has warmed.
Just don’t take them for granted. Take it from me, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.*