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 sour orange (sour orange) and citron, which is your basic granddaddy of the citrus family, with its thick bumpy rind and bitter taste.
The fruit has come a long way since then, making it among the world’s favorite citrus. Arab traders brought lemons to 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. Nowadays, the citron, which contains very little pulp or juice, is usually candied and baked into fruitcakes.
Slow to catch on, for over a century citron and lemon were the only citrus fruits known in the Mediterranean basin. Lemons, though abundant and commonplace today, were really rare in ancient Rome, prized by the elite, and represented high social standing.
Initially, lemons weren’t widely grown for food or seasoning but largely an ornamental plant, such as berries, until about the 10th century. The Arabs introduced the lemon into Spain in the 11th century, and by then they had become a common crop in the Mediterranean region. The lemon has been introduced to Western Europe somewhere between the years 1000 and 1200 BC. And traveled with the Crusades throughout their journeys, which makes its way to England in the early 16th century. The original Italian word limone dates back to the Arabic and Persian word limun. (More than you wanted to know.)
Due to Christopher Columbus, who brought them to Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic) in 1493, these new trees which produced strange yellow tart fruit, spread across the New World but were used mainly as an ornamental and medicinal plant because of their very sour taste. (Apparently no one had figured out how to make lemon meringue pie nonetheless ).
Whilst foodie president Thomas Jefferson boasted over one thousand fruit trees in his orchards, there is no record he ever experimented with citrus, although he should have encountered them in his travels to France, but the Virginia climate simply didn’t lend itself to citrus. However, lemons were being grown in California from the mid-1700s, and in tropical Florida by the 1800s, when they became a hit in cooking and flavoring.
Though lemon flavored puddings and custards have been enjoyed for centuries, our preferred lemon meringue pie as we know it now is a 19th-century item. The oldest recorded recipe has been attributed to a Swiss baker named Alexander Frehse. There’s also speculation that a British botanist could have chased it about 1875, but whoever dreamed it up sure did us a favor.
Over 200 or so varieties of the lemon have evolved over the past three centuries. The Meyer lemon is named after Frank N. Meyer, who first introduced it to the USA in 1908, after he discovered it rising in Peking, China and brought back to the U.S.. Unlike regular sugars, Meyer lemons aren’t selected green and treated after harvesting but are picked when fully ripe. They bear fruit yearlong, are generally less sour and their pulp is orange-colored.
Many people 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 hundreds of 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 importance in nutrition.
It’s tough to imagine life without the lemon. However you enjoy them, their bright yellow color, tangy taste and fragrant odor enhance our lives in many various ways, and if you’re fortunate enough to reside in a place where they grow, you can indulge for practically pennies. So, as the old saying goes,”When life hands you a lemon…”