It’s hard to imagine life without oranges and lemons. A staple of cuisines from Spain to China, citrus is probably our most versatile fruit family. Best of all, they come into season now, when many others have ended. There are about seven species of native limes, plus cultivars, but sadly they are still rare in shops – which is ironic because new research suggests all modern varieties can be traced back to Australasian species from 30 million years ago. However, you will find new-season lemons, limes, satsumas – a lunchbox favourite – and navel oranges, taking over from summer’s Valencias.
You might even find tangelos, citrons, yuzu, Buddha’s hand or bergamot; there are hundreds of types and they’re all cousins. They’re also good for you, providing fibre, lots of vitamin C, B vitamins (including folate), antioxidants and trace minerals.
Few Greek dishes are complete without lemon, and it’s a healthy addition: squeeze it on salads, stir fries, risottos, roast potatoes, chicken, fish, water, tea – and an occasional gin and tonic. High levels of citric acid mean lemon is a good meat tenderiser and it can be used as a cleaning aid. It’s even supposed to fade sunspots. To preserve a glut, you can freeze juice in ice trays, make cordial and curd, or preserve lemons in salt.
Limes can be substituted for a change; generally they are more acidic. The sweetest citrus are oranges, which work well in cakes, desserts and salads. Try oranges with raw fennel for a summery crunch in winter. Or create the colourful Sicilian orange salad, using a range of sliced citrus dressed with olives, red onion and olive oil. Swap tinned fruit for fresh citrus to make a refreshingly different trifle; you can even make the jelly from scratch using fresh juice, and decorate with shavings of orange-flavoured chocolate.
Grapefruit adds flavour to a salad too – it is particularly tasty with avocado, rocket and prawns, or in a Vietnamese-style slaw with chicken or crab.
Make an easy lemon curd by whisking 2 eggs, 2 egg yolks, 175g caster sugar, 80g butter and 2 lemons (zest & juice). Stir continuously over low heat until thickened. Store in an airtight jar in the fridge.
words Jane Canaway illustrations Clementine/The Illustration Room
Cooking tip: Add lemon juice before scrambling eggs to retain their golden colour.