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Lemon: A Global History by Toby Sonneman (Reaktion Books, 2012
I've always wondered about the warty etrog (citron, or Citrus medica) used as part of the Jewish observance of Sukkot (etrog represents one of The Four Species mentioned in the Biblical description of this festival; the others are palm, myrtle, and willow): what purpose did the fruit serve beyond the ritual, and how was this odd-looking fruit related to lemon? The answers to these and many other citrus-related questions may be found in Toby Sonneman's Lemon: A Global History, a volume in the Edible series from Reaktion Books (2012). It was a surprise to discover the important role of the citron (probably a wild species from northeast India) in the development of a 'citrus culture' that eventually gave rise to the lemon we use for its flavor. Citron, thick-skinned and inedible, was valued for its fragrance (mentioned in a Hindu text from before 800 B.C.E.). Its centuries-old use in Jewish ritual would eventually lead to cultivation in different parts of the world after the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E., when so many Jews dispersed across North Africa, into the Aegean, Spain, and Italy.
The lemon was probably an ancient natural hybrid, and its route to the Mediterranean is difficult to trace because of the confusion in written and visual depictions: lemons and citrons are hard to distinguish, and common names can be unreliable. Lemons hold an important place in Arab culture, and were also prized in Persia. Because of the lemon's need for water, farmers developed ingenious irrigation canals with stone tiles to regulate and direct water flow, these methods were widely adopted.
The first recipes using lemon appeared in a 12th century Egyptian treatise called On Lemon: Its Drinking and Use by Ibn Jumay, a Jewish physician in the court of Saladin. He devised a way of preserving lemons with salt, and mentions the fruit's medicinal uses for a wide range of conditions. Ibn Jumay's writing was translated, and lemon's culinary and medicinal fame spread.
Other points of interest:
- Lemons were scarce and costly, and therefore a status symbol, in Northern Europe. You will find them in many 17th century Dutch still life paintings.
- Cosimo III de’Medici grew 116 varieties of citrus in his gardens. The name Medici is possibly related to the name for citron, Median apple (Media being the Greek name for ancient Persia).
- It took a long time for sea voyagers to figure it out, but lemons were an essential preventive against scurvy. (If you think about the term 'ascorbic' acid—something which is found in lemons and other citrus--you can see that it is anti-scurvy!) British English does not use 'lemon' in the pejorative sense of American English, perhaps a bow to the fruit’s life-saving properties.
- Harvesting lemons is a thorny business but the Meyer lemon has fewer thorns.
This pocket history reaches from antiquity to the present time, and is packed with colorful details and illustrations. You may also want to try making Ibn Jumay's preserved lemons, included along with several other more recent recipes.
Dates: A Global History by Nawal Nasrallah is another title in the Edible series from Reaktion Books. An unusual aspect of the fruit (technically a berry) of the date palm tree is that it may be harvested at three different stages of ripeness—the ultrasweet dates one usually finds for sale in groceries are at the final stage, when they have sun-dried on the tree and the skin has begun to wrinkle and darken. Dates have been used as a food staple for centuries. Once called 'bread of the desert' and 'cake for the poor,' dates are still considered of vital importance in combatting world hunger.
The date palm's botanical name (Phoenix dactylifera) derives from the tree's origins in Phoenicia (now Lebanon, Syria, and Israel), while the species name might refer back to the Semitic roots of the word for palm (dekel in Hebrew, diqla in Aramaic, etc.) or could refer to the finger-like (dactylos) shapes of clusters of fruit, or more: it's shrouded in mystery and confusion, as with so many names. You will also learn of a connection to the firebird or phoenix of myth and legend, which built a nest of cassia twigs and frankincense in the top of a date palm.
Other aspects of the date palm:
- Once a full crown of leaves has developed, the trunk does not widen with age—there are no annual growth rings if one cuts a cross-section. Leaves which die off protect the trunk with their bases that remain attached. The tree's roots are fibrous, and secondary roots grow out of the bottom of the trunk. Both a male and female tree are needed to produce fruit. Trees must be hand-pollinated in spring (this has been common knowledge since the days of Mesopotamian agriculture!).
- Even in the days of Pliny the Elder, there were numerous varieties of dates. The ones American consumers will probably recognize are medjool and deglet noor, but there are nightingale's eggs (beidh il-bilbil), khalasa (quintessence), and even an Obama date named for our president.
- Although we mainly think of date palms for their edible uses, the hollowed trunks were made into aqueduct pipes for irrigation, and were used in building (the first mosque in Medina, built in about 630 C.E., was reportedly made of palm trunks, thatched with palm leaves, with prayer mats of woven leaves).
- Indio in Southern California is the date capital of the U.S., and holds an annual date festival.
The book ends with several tempting recipes (sweet ones such as a 13th-century recipe for date syrup, and a personal favorite—a filled cookie called ma'moul, as well as savory uses).
Like the other books in this series, this title includes footnotes, bibliography, and index.
Review by Plant Answer Line librarian Rebecca Alexander