There are few fruit that are as versatile as lemons. They work in sweet and savory dishes, in drinks, desserts, and especially over fish. And they've been around for a long, long time.
According to National Geographic, researchers have used the DNA of today's citrus fruits to trace them back to some time in the late Miocene epoch... but what does that mean? It means wild citrus trees have been growing for around seven to eight million years.
The BBC says those original trees came from the foothills of the southern Himalayas, and it wasn't until the weather shifted and became drier that they began to spread. That was about four million years ago, and since that spread we've cultivated today's fruit. Lemons are descended from the citron, the sour orange, and the pomelo, and from the very moment mankind first bit into one, they were special. Lemons were especially prized by the ancient Romans and other Mediterranean peoples, who considered them a valuable commodity for their rarity, exoticism and usefulness, both practical and symbolic.
And things haven't changed too much, even to this day. We still value these deliciously sour fruits, and it turns out there's a lot of fascinating things you might not know about them.
Lemons are genetically a mix of citron and bitter orange. The lemons you see in your supermarket are likely Eureka or Meyer lemons, by far the most common on the market today, but specialist growers produce other varieties, such as the oil-rich Sorrento from Italy, which is what goes into limoncello.
Lemon + cocktails
The reason citrus cocktails have remained so ubiquitous, though, goes deeper than simple tradition. The main sources of flavor in citrus fruits—citric acid, malic acid, and succinic acid—are extremely appealing in concert with a combination of alcohol, sugar, and bittering agents. Varieties which contain a higher ratio of citric acid to sugar, like lemons and limes, are actually significantly more palatable when their sour elements are cut with some amount of bitterness.
Texture is also a hugely important factor in the success of citrus juice as a cocktail ingredient. Thanks to the presence of pulp, when the juice is used in a shaken cocktail it adopts a light, frothy character that makes it a perfect base for sours and fizzes, and generally elevates the aromas of any ingredient by introducing air bubbles. Pulp-free juices, like apple or cranberry, don’t offer quite the same fullness of character.
Sources through East Asia: Burma & the North East of India.
Traditional Uses: Scurvy Preventative, vitamin C source, Acidifier in classic sour drinks, additive in fresh food and used as a seasoning.
Exerted flavour profile: Acidifier, sourness, fresh fruit and body.