PHOTOGRAPHY BY MICHELLE MAGDALENA
When I first laid eyes on my home ranch in Aromas, I imagined thriving Meyer lemon trees with yellow fruit hanging like ornaments on the hillside, and walkways lined with lavender. The lavender would attract and provide a habitat for bees, and in turn the bees would pollinate the lemons. A decade later, lovely balls of sunshine brighten my winter days and provide many months of delicious, thin-skinned, sweet-tart lemons that thrive in this microclimate. My vision of a lavender lemonade farm has come to fruition—we now sell our lemonade at the farmers’ markets alongside our lemons.
Meyer lemons are sweeter and more round than Lisbon or Eureka varieties, their skin is dark orange-yellow when ripe and they contain much more juice than traditional lemons. Often, I find lemon rinds lying around the farm from my snacking workers, proof that for some the Meyer lemon is sweet enough to eat like an orange!
Meyer lemons (citrus × meyeri) are not true lemons but actually a cross between a citron and hybrid of a mandarin and pomelo, discovered by a traveling U.S. Department of Agriculture agent named Frank Meyer, who brought back a specimen from China in 1908. By the 1940s, Meyers were flourishing in California until cloned Meyer lemons were found to be carriers of the citrus tristeza virus, responsible for killing all kinds of citrus throughout the world. To contain the virus, Meyer lemon trees were destroyed to save the citrus industry from collapse. In the 1950s, healthy and virus-free Meyer trees were found and later that decade the Improved Meyer Lemon, certified to be disease free, was replanted and back in action.
However, it wasn’t until the 1970s that Meyers were discovered by chefs. Alice Waters from Chez Panisse and Martha Stewart both stoked the flame of the Meyer lemon craze and helped make this special lemon very popular with their fancy tarts, lemon curds and sorbets. The desire for these sweet, low-acid lemons with a distinctive floral fragrance made them a must-have in the kitchen. Chefs use lemons in so many ways to balance flavors and brighten dishes.
Meyers were hot and hard to find a few decades ago, then as typical when there is a niche to fill and money to be made, farmers overplanted them and the wholesale price went down. It is still monetarily worthwhile to grow and sell them—especially considering they are relatively easy to grow, have high yield and people love them. Most homes on the Monterey Peninsula have a Meyer lemon tree, so although treasured, many people have access to them. This is a great thing, because these gorgeous lemons are so versatile in cooking and good for your health!
Each morning I start my day with a lemon squeezed into a quart of water for hydration and health benefits. Lemon juice is alkaline in the body, a good state for the body to be in for overall health. The juice purges toxins and cleanses the liver. It also contains a lot of vitamin C and potassium. The alkalinity naturally prevents acid from building up that can cause heartburn and acid reflux. The aroma and the skins are just as good for you! They contain natural terpenes called D-limonene that uplift mood, act as antioxidants, reduce inflammation and may prevent or slow cancer by inducing cell death. The peels are a concentrated source of this compound—a good reason to eat the peels in the form of lemon zest and pith. This same compound is found in nontoxic cleaners and organic pest controls that work amazingly well.
Meyer lemons are sweeter and more round than Lisbon or Eureka varieties, their skin is dark orange-yellow when ripe and they contain much more juice than traditional lemons.
HOW TO GROW
Meyer lemons like full sun and require a good amount of water during the warm, dry season. They prefer well-drained soil and like to be watered well, but infrequently. They naturally grow to 10 feet tall and six feet wide, but can be pruned to any desired height and even thrive and produce fruit in containers as small shrubs. You can even grow a tree indoors as long as it has full sun, but you will need to hand pollinate by using the base of an electric toothbrush to vibrate the flowers releasing pollen, or a paint brush or Q-tip to move the pollen from one flower to another. Meyers are self-pollinating so they don’t need another kind of lemon tree to set fruit, however, bees and wind are helpful for abundant fruit. Citrus are semi-heavy feeders, so I suggest a pelleted organic fertilizer that breaks down over a longer period of time and feeds the tree with each watering. Organic citrus fertilizers by Down To Earth are good choices.
Commercial farms pull off all the blooms for several years to encourage canopy and vegetative growth. I did not do that as I was antsy for any lemons that would ripen, besides the white and purple flowers have such an intoxicating scent, I couldn’t bear to remove them! Not pinching blooms did make my trees grow slowly, however it does not stunt them. If you plant more than one, it might be a good idea to leave flowers for fruit on one and pull the blooms off the other.
Once trees are about three to five years old, they will produce two crops a year, the heaviest being in the winter and the other in the spring. Some trees can hang fruit all season if you don’t harvest right away, which is nice for year-round lemons in the kitchen.
COOKING WITH MEYER LEMONS
My favorite winter soup is Greek Lemon Chicken Soup, also called Avgolemono, and it is perfect for keeping the funk away or curing a cold. I boil a whole organic chicken in 1.5 gallons of water in a large soup pot until it falls off the bones, remove the bones, strain the broth, and shred the chicken and put it back into the broth. Next, I sweat 4 sweet onions in a separate pan with large zest strips from six Meyer lemons on low to medium heat until translucent, and no color develops (as this will make your soup an ugly brown color instead of bright light yellow). Add 2 cups of long grain white rice and 2–3 bay leaves to the broth and bring to a boil with medium flame. Once the soup reaches a boil, reduce the heat and simmer until rice is tender, which is about 20–30 minutes. Remove the bay leaf and the zest strips with a slotted spoon. Bring soup back up to a boil, then reduce to low heat. Use a stick blender and get half of the rice and chicken mixture blended smooth. In a separate bowl, whisk 4 large eggs and 4 large egg yolks with 1 cup of lemon juice. Add 4 cups of hot broth to the egg mixture and whisk, then add to soup pot. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly until soup is thickened, about 5 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste, and more lemon juice if desired. Once soup is finished, reheat without simmering or getting temperature too high or it will make the soup texture sticky.
Salted lemon preserves with herbs are a staple in our house. So easy to make, all you need is to quarter the lemons, add salt to the jar and layer with woody herbs like thyme (or my favorite, Za’atar) and cover with salt. I use the preserved lemons to rub on chicken and fish, or any meat as a first layer before adding other sauces or olive oil. Preserved lemons can be chopped and added to stir-fries, blended into hummus, used in salad dressings. You name it, preserved lemons are going to add that zing to just about everything. If you don’t need the salt but want the lemon flavor, simply rinse off the lemon and cut up to put in your dish. The salt preserving really mellows the sour flavor and brings out the brightness.
Try making lemon curd and adding thyme, Meyer lemon chutney, lemon lavender pudding cake or candied lemon peel. Come down to the local Santa Cruz farmers’ market and grab your lemons, Route 1 Farms sells them as do Twin Girls, Groundswell, Rodoni and of course Serendipity!
Frozen Lemon-Gingersnap Pie
RECIPE: Courtesy Michelle Lee, sous chef, C restaurant, InterContinental The Clement in Monterey
PHOTOGRAPHY: Michelle Magdalena
This dessert features one of my all-time favorite flavor combinations, lemon and ginger. The base of this recipe is a French parfait, which is a light frozen mousse. This parfait is basically lemon curd with whipped cream folded into it.