Lemons: winter’s golden gift

For Dave Pepler, as for all of us, the brightness of lemons enlivens grey, wintry days…

Yesterday, I woke up sucking on a lemon
Radiohead: ‘Everything in its right place’

I adore old waiters. I adore them because they are a dying breed of food counsellors; they never use a notepad when taking orders and, if you are blessed, they will guide you, ever so gently, to transform the simple act of eating into an indelible gastronomic ritual. They are waiters because that is their chosen career.

Many, many years ago I was staying in an ancient farmhouse in the Tankwa Karoo, a modest house that honestly reflected the pioneer life of our own ‘outback’. The kitchen had a steely patina of wood smoke, the table was scrubbed with Sunlight soap, the hearth was wide and deep. Above the ancient poplar beam of the inglenook, in fading script, was a framed prayer:

We break this bread together
in our hearts aware
that it is not bread alone
but God’s love and light we share.

An old waiter brings love and light to your table.

There is a tiny seafood restaurant, the famed Casino Oriente Penco, a few kilometres north of Concepcion in Chile. Our waiter was truly ancient and we decided to trust his recommendations, even though the menu was very modest. We started with locos, tiny Chilean abalone served cold with a tangy mayonnaise, and followed with merluza austral, undoubtedly the finest fish I have ever been served. Replete, we asked the waiter what he would suggest as dessert after this exquisite meal. He disappeared and returned with three slices of lemon sponge topped with marron glacé. Right there, this most perfect foil – tart but sweet, soft but also crackling – established lemons as the keystone of my cooking and the cornerstone of my gustatory memories.

When I was a child, certain fruits and vegetables could not be bought in shops simply because everyone had a living larder of lemon trees, Cape gooseberries, figs and oranges in their gardens. The lemons were of the old varieties, with thick, knobbly skin and a pulp so sour that it made your eyes water. Everybody in those days used lemons: in cooking, to cut through rich flavours; as the main ingredient in toddies when colds and flu struck; and, of course, for homemade lemonade. But I remember lemon trees not so much for their fruit, but for the heady perfume of their flowers. To this day, Christalle by Chanel, Jicky by Guerlain and Nina by Nina Ricci take me back to the gardens of my youth.

Since ancient times lemons have been cultivated extensively, especially in the Middle East and in Mesoamerica, where Columbus introduced the seeds. To this day, lemons are deeply embedded in the Latino diet. Having a lemon tree in your garden guarantees a winter bounty of golden goodness, not only in fruit, but in scent and texture too. Lemon trees love full sunlight and deep, well-drained soil; if you have clay soil, so much the better. Deep mulching with compost after planting will give your tree a running start. Although I am not a fan of artificial fertilisers, it is wise to feed it twice a year with a mix of nitrogen and potassium. Also remember that these are relatively thirsty plants, so watering them regularly in summer will keep them content.

Unfortunately, in recent times most of the gardens of Stellenbosch have become homogenised in content and architecture; what is in one garden is matched by what’s in its neighbour’s. But we do have links to the past, especially in the wonderful Johnman garden in Herte Street. Go and have a look at its ancient lemons, then go home and plant your own. Now you will have a living link to an ancient culinary tradition – and, to boot, a source of culinary and visual delight. 

Dave Pepler is a landscape ecologist and naturalist
interested in the living world and how we interact with
the environment. As a humanist, he believes in
the inherent goodness of man and holds kindness
to be the greatest virtue.


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