The history of lemonade is a surprisingly long and far-reaching one: the whole world, it seems, has been drinking some variety of lemonade for at least the last thousand years.
The first written reference to lemonade is in an Egyptian text from 1000AD, a lemon drink made with lemons, dates and honey.
India has been drinking lemonade, or lemon-based soft drinks for centuries: Limbu pain or nimbu paani is a lemon drink often containing salt or ginger, while shikanjvi is flavoured with saffron and cumin.
In Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, lemon is combined with mint for their lemonade of choice, Limonana. This began as a fictitious product, which was the subject of a fake advertising campaign in the 1990s, designed to show how successful advertising on buses was. And it did, in spades: the level of demand for the fictional lemonade was so high that manufacturers created it.
17th century Paris had its own Compagnie de Limonadiers, a group who held the monopoly on vending lemonade on the streets, carrying tanks of the drink on their backs. Modern France has citron pressé: where lemonade is presented to the customer in its constituent parts: lemon juice, syrup and water, for them to mix according to taste.
For my part, lemonade conjures up thoughts of the American South: the soft, non-alcoholic sister of the mint julep: long, cold, refreshing and tart, made for porches and hot, late afternoons. Its reviving, restorative qualities are described in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird…
‘Lemonade in the middle of the morning was a summertime ritual. Calpurnia set a pitcher and three glasses on the porch, then went about her business. Being out of Jem’s good graces did not worry me especially. Lemonade would restore his good humor.’
It may feel that England has less of a lemonade heritage than much of the rest of the world: we rely on supermarkets, and tend to turn our creativity to drinks of the alcoholic variety. But there is written reference to lemonade being drunk in England from 1633, in The Parson’s Wedding, a play described by a contemporary of Pepys as ‘an obscene, loose play’, which had been first performed some years earlier. This lemonade was not dissimilar to the French citron pressé: a combination of syrup, lemon juice, diluted with water. Lemonade continued to be sold and enjoyed in England from that time, with Boswell writing of Samuel Johnson enjoying lemonade in a tavern.
My recipe takes its inspiration from the simple English version: lemon juice, syrup, diluted with water. It’s a very straightforward recipe, but a good one: you can adjust the drink with extra sugar once it’s chilled if you prefer a sweeter drink, and do try one of the twists below! Serve in a large pitcher over lots of ice.
Makes: 1.5 litre lemonade
Takes: 10 minutes, plus chilling
Bakes: No time at all
1. Pare the peel in large sections from the lemons: holding the lemon peel flat, and placing a sharp knife parallel with the peel, cut any pith from the peel (pith can make the drink bitter).
2. Place the sugar in the pan with 1.5 litres of water. Give the mixture a good stir, and bring quickly to the boil, by which point the liquid should be clear.
3. Juice the lemons and place the juice and peel in the pan along with the syrup. Chill down until cold.
4. Strain the mixture into a pitcher filled with ice, and add the lemon peel from the pan to the pitch.
Three twists on homemade lemonade:
– Lavender lemonade: Make lavender sugar by rubbing lavender flowers into sugar and leaving to infuse. Replace half of the sugar with lavender sugar. Garnish with English lavender stalks.
– Rhubarb lemonade: Cook a couple of stalks of chopped rhubarb with 2 tablespoons or so of sugar (adjust depending on the sourness of your rhubarb) until soft and falling apart. Drain off the pale pink rhubarb syrup and reserve for stirring into the lemonade. The leftover rhubarb is particularly good poured over cold Greek yoghurt!
– Mint and rosemary lemonade: Cut sprigs of rosemary and mint to a height a little taller than your serving glass. Clap the mint and rosemary between your hands to release the oils. Pour the lemonade over the stalks, and stir to infuse.