It's hard to imagine Greek food without lemon. A squeeze of lemon over barbecued seafood and meats is an absolute must. Lemon sharpens dolmades and lifts grilled haloumi; a splash at the end of cooking transforms lentils or vegetables braised in olive oil. Then there are more traditional dishes such as avgolemono, a wonderful soup of chicken broth made rich, tangy and creamy with lemon juice and egg; or the salty, fishy flavours of taramasalata, a mayonnaise balanced by the sharpness of lemon. It's easy to imagine that the humble lemon introduced the first note of vital acidity into this and many other cuisines.
Leafing through a Greek cookbook recently, I found a recipe for fish braised with tomato, olive oil and wine. Its rusticity appealed to me and I brought home some fresh snapper to cook that night. I braised onions and garlic gently in olive oil, then added ripe tomatoes, fresh oregano and a splash of white wine. I laid the fish on top, covered the dish and simmered it slowly until it was cooked. I finished it with a splash of fruity olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. It was sublime, in the way cooking with just a handful of superb ingredients can be. The familiar flavours of the Mediterranean - olive oil, onion, garlic and tomato - blended beautifully with the fish. But it was the lemon juice that gave vitality to the dish and highlighted each individual flavour, even the oregano leaves.
Nature provides a perfect little package in a lemon. It is a hard, robust fruit that transports easily. It has a fragrant skin full of vitamin C; a thick, bitter pith essential for a gin and tonic; and tart, juicy flesh that awakens every ingredient with which it mingles. I love the way Pablo Neruda describes this fruit in Ode to the Lemon: "We opened two halves of a miracle, congealed acid trickled from the hemispheres of a star… the most intense liqueur of nature."
In Australia we have four key lemon varieties. The Eureka, Lisbon and Villa Franca are commercial varieties that look and taste fairly similar. The Meyer lemon is a hybrid between an orange and a lemon. It's much sweeter than the other types, and its golden skin makes it easy to distinguish. Lemon trees fruit throughout the year and lemons will keep for a long time in the fridge. Once they're cut, though, they should be used swiftly, before they oxidise. Lemon juice should be squeezed fresh and used at once; it never tastes quite as good when stored for any length of time. I remember, many years ago, discovering a bottle of lemon "juice" in the fridge of my share-house and wondering what could be more ridiculous.
Lemon juice makes a good counterpoint to flavours that are earthy, rich or dulled from long cooking. Like all citrus juices, lemon juice loses flavour when cooked, so if you're adding it to grilled or cooked meats or braised vegetables or beans, do so at the last minute so that its crisp acidity can be fully appreciated. Lemon juice will cause the chlorophyll in green vegetables and herbs to dull - another reason to add it at the very last minute.
A good way to use an abundance of lemons - if you have a lemon tree in your garden, say, or you find them cheap at a farmer's market - is to preserve them. Cut them lengthways into quarters without cutting all the way through to the base, pack them into jars with salt and perhaps some spices such as coriander seed, cinnamon and fresh bay leaves, then leave for several months. A good way to speed up the preserving process is to cut the lemons the night before and freeze them whole. This way they can be ready in three months. Jars of preserved lemons make a wonderful addition to the pantry. The lovely bright-yellow contents are a pleasure both to look at and to use - particularly in winter, when a little preserved lemon adds zing and brightness to those slow-cooked wintry casseroles.
Lemons have perhaps their sweetest ends in desserts. Whenever I am baking a cake or a tart, I add a little fragrant zest or a squirt of sour juice to leaven and lift all that butter, sugar and flour. I remember a fabulous Sussex Pond pudding that chef Andrew McConnell once made for a lazy Sunday lunch with friends. This is a gorgeous and decadent suet pudding filled with brown sugar and lemon, and it's a great example of how the vibrancy and acidity of the lemon complements the sweetness of sugar and the richness of fat. Lemons perfect so many desserts: lemon delicious pudding, lemon curd (only homemade will do), lemon gelato, pancakes with muscovado sugar and lemon juice, a butter cake flavoured with lemon zest, still warm from the oven, drenched in lemon syrup. Delicious.