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Meyer Lemons Don't Suck

Some foods, like Wagyu beef or toro tuna, are just so good to eat that when gourmands wax rhapsodic about them the praise is justified.

More often then not, it seems, such acclaim is more about showing how au courant a critic is than about the actual appeal of the delicacy. Take fugu, the Japanese puffer fish with a very acquired taste that can kill you if a chef handles it improperly. Talk about being tragically hip.

But the gastronomic world got it right when it elevated Meyer lemons to the foodie pantheon. Even if you’re indifferent to most fruit, you might just get a jones on for this delectable citrus once you take a nibble.

A Meyer lemon tastes like a cross between a lemon and a sweet orange, or mandarin. The fruit is very tender and extremely juicy, and its peel is much thinner than a regular lemon, which is technically known as a Eureka, though they’ve become so ubiquitous you’ve probably never heard that prefix before.

Meyer lemons are used in pretty much the same ways as other lemons, but they turn ordinary lemon-based dishes - lemon bars, lemon curd, lemon cake, even cocktails - into spectacular things.

Johnny Iuzzini is a Meyer lemon fanatic. He is also the Executive Pastry Chef for the New York City eateries Restaurant Jean George and Perry Street, the 2006 James Beard “Outstanding Pastry Chef of The Year” award winner, and author of “Dessert FourPlay: Sweet Quartets From a Four-Star Pastry Chef”.

“What a fragrance! It’s so distinct,“ he says about them. “You know a lemon by taste, but when I go into my walk-in [refrigerator] I know there are Meyer lemons in there just by their fragrance. You don’t have that with other lemons. They’re richer and more robust than regular lemons. Regular lemons in a lemon curd have that traditional lip puckering, very acidic citrus flavor. It’s very sharp. Meyer Lemons are sweeter, more robust. It’s a rounder flavor.”

Can they replace regular lemons in typical recipies? Yes, but to a point.

“They’re interchangeable but you’ll get a different result,” Iuzzini says. “It’s like with onions. There are sweet onions there are yellow, white, red onions. They’re all good, they’re all onions, but when you cook with them you get a different flavor, a different result. Here’s a real example: A traditional Crepe Suzette is made with orange juice and orange sections. I’ve made it with Meyer lemon juice and Meyer lemon sections. It’s unbelievable. Incredible. But it comes down to what you prefer.”

Take a lemon meringue pie. People love its sour-sweet, mouth-puckering, lemony base, and you won’t get that flavor and those qualities if you make it with Meyer lemons. Some things just cry out for that traditional lemon flavor. Like everything else, taste it, try cooking with it, and decide what you prefer.

But Iuzzini says that their distinctive, lemony-but-sweeter-than-a lemon flavor lends itself to “a lot of different applications.”

“I make a Meyer lemon marshmallow where I zest and dehydrate the peel, grind it almost into dust and fold the Meyer lemon dust into marshmallows. I add a little Meyer Lemon essential oil. Unbelievable. They’re great.”

And his favorite dish? Sorbet.

One of the best pastry chefs in the country and he’s raving about one of his favorite ingredients and he comes up with… sorbet. Sorbet is so pedestrian, plain, plebian; every fruit ends up in a sorbet. So what’s so special about a Meyer lemon sorbet?

Iuzzini explains: “Sorbet is fruit in its purest form. It’s just juice, water, sugar. That’s it. Sometimes the purest form, the purest expression of something, if it’s so good to begin with, is what’s best. That’s the case with Meyer Lemon sorbet. You don’t need to manipulate it. Meyer Lemons are just that good.”

And to think it’s only recently that these paragons of flavor, fragrance and texture have made their way into the kitchen, at all.

They are named for Frank Nicholas Meyer, an Agricultural Explorer with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, (hmmm… sounds like an old time stimulus job). He brought them to the United States in 1908 from China where the trees were purely ornamental.

The little lemons thrived mostly in sub-tropical citrus growing regions of the U.S. and were grown mostly in backyards. Their thin skin and delicate fruit made them nearly impossible to ship, so they were commercially unviable at the time.

After the War an enterprising former retail salesman in women’s clothing and accessories, named Floyd Dillon, decided to move west and open a wholesale dwarf-tree nursery. According to his great-grandson, Aaron Dillon, a fourth-generation citrus grower, Four Winds Growers in Fremont, California opened in 1950 and is now one of the largest dwarf citrus growers in California. Meyer Lemons make up about 20% of their sales today.

“My great-grandfather saw that there was going to be a population boom in California after the war. A lot of returning soldiers were coming through California. My great-grandfather thought, ‘Once they see this, they’re not going to go home and stay in Illinois or North Dakota unless they have to.’”

Floyd Dillon wanted to develop a citrus version of dwarf apple and pear trees and thought Meyer lemon trees would be perfect for California’s climate, but there was a problem: tristeza, a virulent virus which wiped out entire citrus crops in Brazil and Argentina from the early to mid-1900s. By the 1950s it had moved to California and the California Department of Agriculture decided to quarantine all citrus within in the LA Basin to contain the virus.

So, just before the quarantine went into effect, Dillon moved his fledgling nursery out of Ventura County and north to Mission San Jose. When he got there he found a single Meyer lemon tree growing in the nearby town of Brentwood. He took a cutting and was soon growing Meyer lemon trees.

By the 60s, the California Department of Agriculture decided to develop a clean, virus-free source of Meyer lemons, so they begin testing trees state-wide. The only ones free of tristeza in the entire state are Dillon’s. Using cuttings from the trees and “scrubbing” them of impurities at the University of California at Riverside, what is called the “Improved Meyer Lemon” was distributed to growers around California in the late 1960s.

In the 70s, early pioneers of healthy, organic foods, like Alice Waters of the famed Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California, began touting the lemons as gastronomic wonders. They started becoming popular with chefs and specialty food stores. Later, Martha Stewart added her imprimatur, and by the late 1990s they began appearing in larger grocery stores. “Now,” says the younger Dillon, “you find them in season which is January through March, at stores that stock specialty and organic produce such as Whole Foods.” They have to be picked and packed carefully, unlike their thicker-skinned cousins, and quickly shipped.

Dillon says that Meyer Lemon trees can also be grown at home and will thrive in all climates. “Clearly if it’s cold, move them indoors, then back outdoors when the threat of heavy frost is past…They’re very productive. They’re always either setting fruit or blooming pretty pink flowers. You keep them in pots or containers and they grow to the size of their environment. The smaller the pot, the smaller the tree….Handle them the way you would regular potted plants.”

So you can grow Meyer lemons like the Dillons and perform Meyer lemon alchemy like Johnny Iuzzini, but can you still decorate with Meyer lemons?

Yes, says floral event designer Ariella Chezar. Harkening back to the Meyer’s original roots, Chezar puts them fruit, branch, blossom and all into floral arrangements.

“All too often someone fills a cylinder with lemons and calls it a decorative statement," Chezar says. "Or if they have a client who wants a fruity look they’ll wire a lemon into an arrangement and call it a day. There’s nothing wrong with those but I love working with fruit on the branch; orange, quinces, apples, pears and especially Meyer lemons.”

“A bride is not going to call me and say, ‘I want Meyer lemons in my arrangements.’ But I might get a bride who loves yellow and orange. And she’ll know that I have an organic style and will want to incorporate natural yellow elements and that’s when I include Meyer Lemons.”

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