Growing up in Auckland we never bought lemons, there always seemed to be one on the tree in the garden – and when ours occasionally wasn’t fruiting, then someone else’s was.
By late winter in Auckland when the city’s suburbs are at their most colourless, trees stripped leafless under overcast skies, it’s the glow of citrus that stands out, laden on front garden fruit trees.
Lemons are forever current in cooking, but they’re also nostalgic. All those hundreds of thousands of lemon trees planted over decades in Kiwi gardens, still fulfilling the same job that they were planted for while home owners come and go, and the world changes around them.
Lemons grow well in our climate with the combination of sunshine, rain and being able to withstand cold snaps. This productiveness has made the lemon a staple New Zealand flavour.
The lemon that reigns among others for me is the juicy lemon-mandarin cross known as Meyer. This super-fruiter is especially prominent in our kitchen heritage: various grandparents of mine put them into baking (madeira cake), preserves (lemon honey), served with dinghy-caught pan-fried snapper, and even turned into wine (yep). I like how the home garden, especially the fruit and vegetables, feels like a connection to my much-loved, industrious war-generation grandparents – all gardeners.
The Meyer originates from China and is named after the US agricultural explorer, Frank N. Meyer, who found it growing as an ornamental pot-plant near Peking (now Beijing) in 1908. At that stage the US Department of Agriculture sent these explorers to every corner of the earth and would then propagate the seeds of their discovery, sending out millions to farmers across the US to see what took. The Meyer did well in California, Florida and Texas. (It’s a key ingredient of California cuisine too, as popularised by chefs like Alice Waters from Chez Panisse – she has a seminal Meyer lemon cake which can be seen here).
Here in NZ, we have our own intrepid personality to thank for the arrival of Meyers to our country– Hayward Wright – who had orchards in Avondale, Auckland, and introduced fruit never before seen in NZ, including the Meyer lemon, the Satsuma mandarin and the Chinese gooseberry/kiwifruit. (Wright was so instrumental in developing kiwifruit cultivars the most common green kiwifruit is named the ‘Hayward’ after him).
An Auckland Star article from 1929 explains the popularity of Wright’s stand at the Auckland Winter Show – people were keen to save money by growing their own fruit, and found his trees reliable, climatised and prolific. (Auckland Star, 9 July 1929)
A NZ Herald article (14 August 1928) describes the emergence of the Meyer, foretelling the way it went on to punctuate our gardens…
“The Meyer lemon has attracted considerable attention during the past two to three years. The amazing fruiting abilities of one and two-year-old trees of this variety have evoked considerable favourable comment…. It seems as though it is merely a matter of time before the Meyer becomes the popular lemon on the market.” (These old newspapers are all searchable on the National Library’s Papers Past site – what an amazing portal into our heritage!)
While Meyers grow fantastically at home, they tend not to often be found in supermarkets (which may be part of their charm). Meyers actually don’t store that well once picked. The supermarkets need something tougher like the yen ben, which is also New Zealand’s main export lemon – it’s more sour, a duller yellow, and less generous with its juice (but to be fair probably has a stronger lemon flavour than the Meyer).
I decided to make my grandmother’s lemon honey because this was such a treat on toast for breakfast when I’d go and stay with her. I have some of her cookbooks as she passed away this June, and I came across a recipe for lemon honey in her NZ Truth cookbook. (The cookbook seems to be from around 1944, so note the wartime eggless version using marrow too – gag). Lemon honey and lemon curd are basically the same thing, most people seem to use lemon curd these days, but I’m sticking with what Nana called it.