Frank Nicholas Meyer was fascinating—a sort of manic bohemian scientific explorer.
When he returned home to America in 1908 from a trip exploring China, according to Daniel Stone’s The Food Explorer, “his beard was longer, his eyes sunken, his skin worn like the leather of his boots. He had grown his fingernails so long over three years that they curled upward.” In addition to China, he had walked across Siberia and Manchuria, and brought back with him twenty tons of world-changing material, including samples of asparagus, holly and soybeans.
In a small village, he saw a little bush decorating the doorway of a house. It had a yellow fruit, and its owner explained that it was ornamental. Of course, Meyer ate one anyway: “its flavored surprised him as both sweeter than a citron, and tarter than an orange.”
He took a cutting.
This became, of course, the Meyer lemon, which still seems exotic today to everyone who doesn’t live in California. The rest of us are promised a season stretching from Autumn until early Spring, but availability is spotty. They show up, and then they disappear. So the time to look for them is right now.
Meyer was right, the lemons are a cross between a citron and a mandarin, juicy with usually a thin skin. (Although, the skins of the ones I just bought were quite thick.)
They are on the complex end of the citrus spectrum, with a big, round flavor that is floral and tart and has herbaceous hints of thyme. I love the bright simplicity of a eureka lemon (the ones we usually just call “lemons” and are widely available), but Meyer lemons offer a softness and depth that make them more applicable and flexible.
When I see them in the store, I buy a lot of them.
Step one, of course, is making a drink. Because they have a hint of orange flavor they lend themselves beautifully to Sidecars, but the cocktail that I enjoyed most was a simple sour with eight-year-old Haitian Barbancourt Rum (4 parts of rum to 1 part Meyer lemon juice), with a few dashes of simple syrup. My first try was two ounces of rum, half an ounce of juice and half an ounce of turbinado simple syrup. It was a little too sweet for me, and I pulled back on the sugar, but the sweetness in fruit varies, so I suggest that you find your own, um, sweet spot.
Drink in hand, now proceed to step two, which is making Moroccan Preserved Lemons. This is such a simple process that in the Chez Panisse Fruit cookbook, whose recipe I used this time, there isn’t even a list of ingredients. Alice Waters just starts right in on the instructions, which are, more or less, as follow: working over a bowl or a pan to catch the lemon juice, score the lemons from blossom to stem end. Pack the cuts you’ve made with salt. Put a couple of tablespoons of salt in the bottom of a glass jar, and stack the lemons in the jar, sprinkling salt between each one. Pour the lemon juice that you collected when you were working on the lemons into the jar, close it up and leave the lemons on the counter. You can push them down a bit and pack them in there—you want them to express their juices until the lemons are submerged in salty lemon juice, which will take a few days. Let them sit in the brine on the counter or in the fridge, and they’ll be ready to eat in two or three weeks. They’ll keep for a long time. Sliced thin or chopped they’re a great addition to chicken or rice. Chopped fine like a gremolata the preserved lemon will be an alluring addition to lamb stew.
The third, and most important thing, to do with your stash of Meyer lemons is to make marmalade. There are many recipes for this available, and each year I try another one, just to see if I have finally landed on the superlative version. Basically, the marmalade formula is one-one-one, fruit to water to sugar. You cut sections of lemon, with the peels on, and then chop them so you have mostly pith free, seed free triangles of fruit, which you blanch in an equal amount of water in a large, nonreactive pot. (You can put the seeds and the piths in a cheesecloth sachet and wring out a bit more pectin, which will make the marmalade stiffer. If you don’t worry about that sort of thing, well, continue not worrying about it.) After about 20 minutes of simmering, the peels will have softened (taste one), at which point you add a measure of sugar. If you had two cups of lemon, add two cups of sugar. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the marmalade hits 222° F, the temperature at which it sets. This year I made enough to put away several jars, but it’s also worth making a small batch if you have just a few Meyer lemons.
The cooking tightens the bitter flavors of the lemon, and brings out the floral aromas. The marmalade will have a scent of rosewater and will taste even more of bruised thyme. My favorite way to eat it is on crusty bread tucked under a paper-thin slice of good country ham, or dolloped on top of a smear of pate or chicken liver mousse. Just don’t wait, Meyer lemons tend to disappear from the shelves quickly.