L is for… Lemons. Lemons are almost as omnipresent on shopping lists as milk, bread and eggs. We use them in salad dressings and soft drinks, soufflés and sorbets. In Israel and throughout the Middle East, fresh lemonade is consumed on hot, arid days instead of water – it’s more refreshing. In South America lemon juice (along with chili and herbs) is used to ‘cook’ raw fish: the citric acid in the fruit denatures the protein in the fish, making it appear to be cooked. The result is ceviche, probably lately arrived to a hipster restaurant near you. And here in England we add lemon juice to mountains of sparkling, crunchy white sugar in our Shrove Tuesday pancakes. Or we bake an entire lemon in suet pastry to make the decadent Sussex Pond Pudding. Or we cook chicken with it – a staple of most countries on earth apart, interestingly, from China. In fact lemons are so ubiquitous that they are a basic flavour, one that we use to describe other foods. So basil is lemony, and so too are sumac, thyme and verbena.
But lemons aren’t just for eating. They are unutterably beautiful, shiny and waxy and perfectly ovaloid. The dimply skin, the neat little symmetrical peaks at each end, the way it fits snugly in a clasped hand: all deeply satisfying. Perhaps more even than sun and sea, the lemon symbolises the Mediterranean. No wonder Dolce and Gabbana designed their entire, entirely delectable, SS 16 collection on the fruit. Twinkling on earrings, floating on dresses and dotted on bags it looked fresh, fun and feminine – and was copied ubiquitously by the high-street retailers, who know a good thing when they see one.
They look fabulous, too, as an element of interior design. The elegant trees have slender trunks that reach upwards into an abundance of verdant, glossy leaves. The dainty pink-white flowers smell delicately sweet: not quite the heady aphrodisiac of orange blossom, but not half bad. And, of course, the fruit peering through the leaves is like catching a glimpse of a smile. The trees can adorn a hippy, cluttered room perfectly but also work surprisingly well with minimalist interiors – an unexpected twisty shape and pop of colour in amongst monochrome sharpness.
The fruit has a host of other, more practical uses, too. I experienced a jolt of nostalgia recently when I saw some children using lemon juice as invisible ink and remembered laboriously dabbing secret notes onto increasingly damp paper, then heating it up until it became crinkly and charred and the message was revealed. And this summer I did something I haven’t done since I was a teenager and doused my hair in lemon juice, hoping to get some natural highlights. I’d forgotten how sticky and tricky and process it is, and how crispy it makes your hair go – but, my goodness, it’s good, clean fun.
Lemons also make a versatile, cheap kitchen product. The juice can get rid of almost any stain. Mixed with baking powder or salt it can polish up copper pans to a satisfying, Cinderella-worthy gleam. Paired with baking soda it cleans Tupperware and food containers. The juice disinfects, bleaches and gets rid of smells. The oils, meanwhile, are used for wood polish and as an astringent on insect bites. So the next time life gives you lemons, remember there’s plenty more to them than lemonade.