Ode to the Lemon Tree and
All It Provides
Meir Shalev on the Most Important Tree in the Garden
The garden shapes the house and the house shapes the garden. The house overflows into the garden with nooks and corners to nap and sit and work in that are like extra rooms. And the garden penetrates the windows with fragrance and color, shaping life in the kitchen, too. I do not grow vegetables, but I have found wild plants growing in the garden that are edible, and I spice up meals with them.
First, chicory can be fried in olive oil and onion as an appetizer. Then there is mallow, similarly prepared, but only when young and fresh. Here and there grows wild garlic, whose leaves I chop and add to salads and omelets. Above all these is the wild asparagus, a pleasing companion to every meal, lean and smaller than its cultured siblings, but superior and more intense in taste, worthy not just as food but as a conversation piece for those who eat it.
I have also brought thyme, white-leaved savory, and sage from the garden, and I enjoy both their aroma and taste. I make a very good pasta sauce with sage. The recipe was given to me by Dr. Eli Landau of blessed memory, a doctor and gastronome, a wise and witty friend, a shoulder to lean on, a keen ear and wide heart. I mourn his absence constantly.Despite my love for the fig, blood orange, pomegranate, and pitanga, if I were allowed to plant only one fruit tree, just one, in my garden, I would choose the lemon tree.
The ingredients: A quantity of good-quality pasta, depending on the number of diners. For this particular dish I recommend pasta that will hold the sauce well, and two diners only, preferably with an air of love between them—and if it is not yet love, then at least affection and curiosity that beg to deepen the relationship.
Butter is also needed, olive oil of the mild variety, dry white wine or semidry, not too sweet and not Chardonnay, a wine which in my opinion is not made from grapes but plywood sawdust. A pinch of salt and, of course, a handful of fresh sage, straight from the garden. If a child is sent to pick the leaves, two handfuls are better, and if the child is very small, then three.
The first rule when making this dish is that it should not be made by both participants in the meal. One person sets to work while the other waits, a glass of chilled white wine in hand, until the dish is ready. In the meantime, the wine sipper can carry on a conversation with the cook, or pester him or her by nuzzling up, depending on how far advanced the relationship is.
The preparation itself is simple. First, divide the handful of sage into two. Tear half the leaves into large pieces, and put aside the others. Heat up a little olive oil in a frying pan and melt the butter, giving it (the exact words written by Dr. Landau in his original recipe) the ripped sage leaves. Sauté briefly on a low flame, add a little water, salt, and white wine. Cover and allow to simmer for a few minutes. Turn off the heat and keep covered with a lid.
Now the rest of the sage leaves are “given” to another pan, sautéed in olive oil at medium heat, and stirred until they are golden brown and crisp, but not blackened or burned, because then they lose their flavor and taste bad. As soon as they are ready, remove them from the frying pan and place on a kitchen towel to soak up excess oil.
Sentence the pasta to death by boiling according to the instructions on the side of the packet, dish the pasta onto the plates, pour the sauce of sage, wine, and butter from the first frying pan onto the pasta. If desired, add a little oil from the second frying pan, stir, sprinkle the browned sage leaves—take care, they easily crumble to the touch—pour more chilled white wine into elegant glasses, and enjoy this dish, which is delicious yet light. Consider this: all the ingredients in this dish indicate good taste. What could be bad about olive oil, wine, and butter? But the real secret to this dish is the addition of crispy sage leaves. These are what lend it character and originality.
The second Italian delicacy is offered by the lemon tree in my garden. I will preface this by saying that despite my love for the fig, blood orange, pomegranate, and pitanga, if I were allowed to plant only one fruit tree, just one, in my garden, I would choose the lemon tree.
The lemon tree is simple and ordinary and does not make any special effort to endear itself to its owners. There are larger and more impressive trees; there are also more reputable and special ones. Its branches are thorny and its fruit sour. Indeed, in contrast to other citrus fruits, nobody peels and eats a lemon the way a clementine or an orange is eaten, and no one squeezes and drinks its juice as though it were grapefruit. The lemon joins only as an addition to a dish or drink, and precisely because of this it is involved, literally, in many meals: I drizzle it onto several dishes, add it to tea or other drinks.
And when I use the lemon to season a vegetable salad, I do it the way my mother taught me: I hold half a lemon in the palm of my right hand and squeeze it over a bowl into the palm of my left hand, so the pips remain in my hand and the rest drips through my fingers. After disposing of the pips, I rub my hands together, one wet from the juice and one fragrant from the peel, and it is pleasant for both me and my hands. Not only the fruit of the lemon, by the way, is fragrant, but also its leaves. You can ask for a leaf or two, rub them between your fingers, and enjoy. When the tree blossoms it is worth putting your head between the branches—watch out for thorns!—and swooning.
But aside from these little remembrance ceremonies and the daily use of its nectar, the lemon tree provides me with a remarkable drink: homemade limoncello, the likes of which cannot be compared. I am not bragging. It is very easy to make limoncello, and the quality is determined not by the person making it but by the tree and its fruit. This is why I am willing to offer the recipe to anyone who is interested: the ingredients are 96 percent grain alcohol (watch out for fake bottles!), mineral water, white sugar, and lemons picked from a tree rather than bought in a store. This is critical.
Store-bought lemons lose part of their aroma due to the time that elapses after they are picked and also due to an extended period of refrigeration, and their peel is covered in pesticides, wax, and all the other horrors that have only one meaning for the limoncello—rack and ruin.
I wash the dust and dirt from the lemons and carefully peel them, not with a knife but with a good vegetable peeler. That’s also important, because it is the outer yellow layer alone that must be peeled. On no account cut through to the white pith under it, because it is bitter. I place these thin yellow peels in large, clean glass jars and then pour the alcohol over them. The ratio is a dozen large lemons to one 750ml bottle of alcohol.When the tree blossoms it is worth putting your head between the branches—watch out for thorns!—and swooning.
I close the jars hermetically and put them in a dark place, and two to three weeks later, when I take a look at them, I am happy to see that the alcohol has turned yellow. I strain the alcohol and throw the peel into the composter, which makes all the insects and maggots very happy. Otherwise I give them to an aunt or uncle who knows how to bake and who can use the peel to enhance the taste of their cakes. I have been told this by those in the know, although I have neither the knowledge nor the desire to bake cakes and cannot suggest recipes or offer advice.
Now comes the turn of the syrup: I boil mineral water and sugar at the ratio of three parts sugar to five parts water, stir, and make certain that all the sugar has dissolved. I leave it to cool and clarify. The cooling is important, because the syrup is going to be mixed with the alcohol and, if the mixture is hot, some of the alcohol will evaporate as if it never existed.
When mixing the syrup and alcohol, I am scrupulous about the ratio of three parts alcohol to five parts syrup. The reason is not because this is a sanctified ratio but because it is simply to my taste. These ratios can be altered in order to make limoncello that is stronger or weaker, sweeter or sourer. It can be tasted and amended by adding more of one of these ingredients: alcohol, syrup, or water. Fresh, strained lemon juice from the same tree can also be added according to taste. This is the time to note that lemons whose peel is placed in the jars with alcohol should not be thrown away after peeling. Squeeze them and make a lemon concentrate from the juice.
I am in the habit of making two types of limoncello, 40 percent and 25 percent, and to serve it according to the time of day, the company, and the circumstances. By the way, the tasting stage, amendments, and return tastings are extremely nice and rich in possibilities, particularly if you cannot decide right away, and then you taste again, and again. For this reason, I advise leaving the tasting stage until after work, not before driving, and in the company of the same person with whom you ate the sage pasta.
I recommend drinking the limoncello ice cold. I store the bottles of 40 percent in the freezer without worrying that they will freeze over, and I keep the bottles of 25 percent in the refrigerator and place one in the freezer about an hour before serving. And another important point: there are friends who, after a single swig of the limoncello, ask me to gift them a bottle, and after three swigs they no longer ask but demand loudly that I do so. It must be made clear that this is simply not possible, because the rumor that the world’s best bottles of limoncello are given out here spreads like wildfire, and people begin appearing, asking, begging, and even threatening. I must set the record straight at this early stage in order to dispel the slightest grain of hope on this matter.
Everything written here is intended to say one thing, that it is good for a person to have a lemon tree in his garden. If you don’t have a garden, a lemon tree can be planted at the entrance to your apartment block. If the neighbor who opposes everything opposes this, too, a lemon tree can be grown in a large pot on the balcony. The lemon tree is hardier and stronger than other citruses and grows nicely in mountainous regions, too, but in areas like that the lemon tree can be helped if planted by a stone wall that faces south, so that at night the heat of the sun stored up during the day will be emitted in the direction of the lemon tree.
And one more thing: if you are emigrating from Israel, you should plant a lemon tree in your new location in order to preserve something of your own identity. But remember that the lemon tree may feel distress in cold places like Berlin or Montreal, so I recommend emigrating to Sicily, California, Australia, Greece, and other places where lemons will also be happy. Plant a lemon tree in your new front yard, and when you get homesick, inhale the scent of a leaf, fruit, or flower, and you will feel better right away.
Excerpted from My Wild Garden by Meir Shalev. Copyright © 2020 by Meir Shalev. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Schocken, an imprint of Penguin Random House.