Our fifteenth A&S Research Paper comes to us from Edmund Beneyt of the Barony of Endewearde, who demonstrates that the delicious preserved lemons of the Middle East have a very long history indeed! (Prospective future contributors, please check out our original Call for Papers.)
On the Preservation of Lemons
The preservation of food has been an ongoing struggle against Nature since man first started storing food for later use. There is evidence of the most basic form of preservation being used 14,000 years ago in the Middle East, and many different strategies have been discovered.
Pickling, the process of preserving food by either anaerobic fermentation in brine or immersion in a liquid of pH 4.6 or lower, is in use by most cultures across the globe. The range of pickled foods is astounding, from meats and fish to grains. The only limit on what can be pickled seems to be what is available to pickle.
A Little History
Preserved lemons are an ingredient in North African stews and tagines, especially prevalent in Moroccan and Libyan cooking where they are known as “leems”. Preserved lemon can be used as a flavour intensifier in stews, pot roasts and slow cooked dishes. Within North African cooking, chicken and lamb benefit from having preserved lemon added. Grated or fine chopped it can be added to salads or dressings, julienned it can be served as a snack or as part of an appetizer platter.
Some of the earliest references to the use of preserved lemons point towards a medicinal value. The Indian Ayurvedic cuisine uses the consumption of lemon pickle to remedy stomach disorders; in East African folk medicine lemon pickle is given for excessive growth of the spleen.
One of the very earliest proponents of preserved lemons, Abū al-Makārim Hibat Allāh ibn Zayn al-Dīn Ibn Jumay‘ [ Ibn Jumai/Jumay] (b ???? d 1198), was a Egyptian-born Jew who went on to serve as physician to An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub (Saladin the Sultan).
Ibn Jumay is infamous for bringing the dead back to life. While watching a passing funerary procession he saw that the feet of the corpse were upright rather than flat, a sign that life had not left the body. He stepped in and treated the man, reviving him and preventing his being buried alive. The man had suffered a cataleptic fit, a condition that causes muscle seizures and non responsiveness, which could be mistaken for death.
He also wrote a minor treatise; On Lemon, it’s Drinking and Use. A medical cookbook, it is the earliest written source that I could find that details the preservation of lemons. Sadly none of the original documents survived past the 12th Century, but thanks to the work of other scholars (Ibn al-Baitar, Compendium) and the great Islamic translation projects the details are available to us. It has been said that the process Ibn Jumay documented has been universally copied since.
Take lemons that are fully ripe and of bright yellow color; cut them open without severing the two halves and introduce plenty of fine salt into the split; place the fruits thus prepared in a glass vessel having a wide opening and pour over them more lemon juice until they are completely submerged; now close the vessel and seal it with wax and let it stand for a fortnight in the sun, after which store it away for at least forty days; but if you wait still longer than this before eating them their taste and fragrance will be still more delicious and their action in stimulating the appetite will be stronger.
– Translated into English by Samuel Tolkowsky, “Hesperides: A History of the Culture and Use of Citrus Fruits” 1938 from the original, “On Lemon, it’s Drinking and Use”; Abū al-Makārim Hibat Allāh ibn Zayn al-Dīn Ibn Jumay‘, 12th century .
If we take this as a true translation, the process as described here is virtually unchanged in modern cooking. The process of opening the soft inner pulp to salt and then covering them in an acidic liquid forces a process known as fermentation. The outer rinds soften as the inner pulp desiccates leaving a vibrant lemon flavour. For use, they are rinsed, the pulp removed and discarded and the rinds used as required.
The climate in Egypt has daytime temperatures are around the 90-100F levels, so my first thought of oven warming would be impossible due to most modern ovens minimum temperature being in the 160-170F range. The only other option that could provide the required temperature range would be a hot water bath, but that would be prohibitive in terms of cost. I reluctantly decided to update my recipe to a more modern room temperature (70F) processing,
This change would also mean adjusting the fermentation time. The original also has a 54 day timeline, 14 days exposure to high temperatures plus 40 days “store away” (by which I would suggest was in a cold store or pantry). After consulting more modern recipes, it appears that between 30 and 45 days at room temperature will suffice to recreate the same quality of product.
The earliest reference to lemons in a European context would be as decorative trees in Southern Italy circa the first century CE. From there the plant was taken to North Africa, appearing in the 10th C. CE in an Arabic treatise on farming, spreading throughout the Arabic sphere of influence. Christopher Columbus transported lemon seeds to the New World in 1493.
While preserved lemons have a wide usage in period North African and Middle East cooking (it is not unreasonable to expect those who went on Crusade to have encountered dishes that contained preserved lemon), lemons were not much used by Northern Europeans for cooking until post Renaissance.
Lemons would have been rare and expensive during the medieval period, available to the influential and rich. England imported much of their lemons from the Azores after cultivation began there in 1494. (A more esoteric use was to rub lemon slices on your lips to deepen the colour, something that apparently does work. There is the apocryphal tale of the basket of lemons given to Anne Boleyn by Henry VIII as a courting gift, the last of which she used to deepen her lips colour just before she went to the Headsman’s block.)
There are recipes that use preserved lemons in late Tudor cooking;
To boyle a Capon larded with lemons:
Take a fair capon and truss him, boyl him by himselfe in faire water with a little small Oat-meal, then take mutton broath and half a pint of white-wine, a bundle of herbs, whole mace, season it with Verjuyce, put marrow, dates, season it with sugar, then take preserved lemons and cut them like lard, and with a larding pin, lard in it, then put the capon in a deep dish, thicken your broth with Almonds and poure it on the capon.”
– Taken from “A New Book of Cookeire…..”; John Murrell, Printed London 1617.
This recipe repeats through later works including the Compleat Cook with almost no deviation in wording.
Preserved lemons are a versatile and simple condiment that can be produced easily.
What follows is the process I used to recreat Ibn Jumay’s recipe.
6 Medium sized lemons
2 Tablespoon of natural sea salt per lemon
2 Cups of lemon juice
1 Quart Mason preserving jar with sealing lid
Dish to collect juice while working with the lemons
Boil the Mason jar for 10 minutes, fully immersed, to sterilize it. Allow to cool and air dry.
Modern lemons are sprayed with a layer of protective wax-like material for transportation. Gently scrub lemons under warm running water to remove wax from the surface of the lemon. Use only scrubbing pads/foams that have not been used for cleaning or exposed to any soap as the lemon’s skin will absorb detergents very easily. Once the waxy looks has gone, hand dry with paper towel.
Make two opposite cuts into the lemons over the dish, using the tops and bottom stems as guides. Collect any juice.
Remove the top and bottom stems from the lemons.
Taking one lemon at a time, pinch the fruit from top and bottom to open cuts. Shake and press the salt into the cuts. Once all the cuts are well salted, reform the fruit into it original shape and place to one side. Repeat and collect any excess salt and juice.
Fill the Mason jar with the fruit. Leave a ¼ inch gap between the top of the fruit and the start of the jar neck. In the dish that was used for collecting excess juice and salt, mix in one cup of lemon juice. Pour mixture into the jar up to the neck. Use additional lemon juice if necessary to fill jar to ½ inch below the neck.
Seal the Mason jar, shaking gently to distribute the juice evenly and upending the jar to check for a proper seal.
Store at room temperature for 30-45 days.
Ibn Jumay (Abū al-Makārim Hibat Allāh ibn Zayn al-Dīn Ibn Jumay‘) d. 1198, “On Lemon, its Drinking and Use” undated (No copy of the original document has survived.)
Ibn al-Baitar (Ibn al-Bayṭār al-Mālaqī, Ḍiyāʾ Al-Dīn Abū Muḥammad ʿAbdllāh Ibn
Aḥmad) b. 1197 d. 1248, “Compendium on Simple Medicaments and Foods”, 1240.
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