Lemons are among the world’s top fruits, from the standpoint of economic and culinary importance. However, if you think about it, it is probably the only really important fruit that nobody actually eats. It’s one of the most popular flavors in the world, but it would be unusual indeed for someone to sit down and bite into a nice, juicy lemon. But that’s not the only odd thing about lemons.
The lemon is actually something of a mystery–at least its origins are mysterious. Chroniclers of food over the centuries have attributed its origin to many places. Several have written that it started in China, yet it was not recorded in China before the 10th century, while it was known in Greece and Rome (introduced in about 185 BC), and appears in wall paintings in Pompeii. Also, the first reference to lemon in China was when two bottles of lemon juice were presented as gifts to the emperor, which would imply a certain degree of rarity. One authority says Malaysia is the point of origin, and a few suggest Persia. Interestingly, none of the places suggested as point of origin offers the kinds of conditions under which lemons grow best. Hence, the mystery remains.
It is interesting to note that the Romans believed that lemon was an antidote for poison. They thought that about salt, too. Says something about their culture, I think — all that looking for antidotes. (Of course, if you read or read I, Claudius or saw the BBC series, you might wonder why they didn’t look harder.)
There was widespread growing of lemons in the Middle East by the first to second century AD, and Rome in the time of Trajan was importing them from Libya. During the eighth and ninth centuries, lemon trees were being planted in the Sahara by Arab invaders. The Moors then carried them into Spain. Northern Europe probably didn’t get the lemon until about 1200, carried home by Crusaders returning from the Middle East. However, the word lemon didn’t appear in the English language for another two hundred years. (Originally from the Arabic laymun, it went through Middle Latin, Middle French, and Middle English before turning into our current word.)
Interestingly, even the nature of the lemon is something of a mystery. Some botanists suggest that the lemon is an ancient hybrid. Carolus Linnaeaus considered it to be nothing more than a variety of citron, and he classified it as such: Citrus medica var. limonum. The lemon was later reclassified as Citrus limon, but the question remains, because cultivated varieties do not breed true from seed. That is, if you plant the seed, it is unlikely that what you’ll grow will be exactly the same as the tree from which the seed came.
Lemons are now available and popular just about everywhere. In the U.S., lemon was one of the first flavorings for soda water (about 1845). It is a common flavor in desserts and sauces, or appears frequently as something to squeeze over or into things. In fact, in the U.S., lemon pretty much only appears in cooking as juice. There are countries that use a bit more of the lemon. Of course, there are Morocco’s preserved lemons. In India, they preserve young, green lemons in mustard oil and spices. In England, lemons are pickled. But even in these cases, they are used as condiments, not as fruit.
The odd, mysterious, nearly inedible lemon is a real treasure, however, because it adds so much flavor, and is so versatile.