Winner of the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year 2000 and Winner of the Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food 2000.
September 29, 2023
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Mangia Bene

The very first uses for the lemon in the Mediterranean were as an ornamental plant in early Islamic gardens. Tracking the progress of the lemon tree from its origin in Assam and northern Burma to China, across Persia and the Arab world to the Mediterranean, is difficult because of the lemon’s adaptability to hybridization. This has caused problems for the horticulturist (a variety might not take to a new land), the food historian (unclear references--for example, the “round citron”), and the taxonomist (a proliferation of botanical terms). Although the citron--like a lemon but larger, with a very thick rind and very little pulp or juice--seems to have been known by the ancient Jews before the time of Christ, and perhaps dispersed in the Mediterranean by them, the lemon seems not to have been known in pre-Islamic times. Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa is wrong to claim in her book A Taste of Ancient Rome, that the Romans grew the lemon. In fact, the malum medicum mentioned by Pliny is the citron.1 Although there are depictions of citrus fruits from Roman mosaics in Carthage and frescoes in Pompeii that bear a striking resemblance to oranges and lemons, this iconographical evidence is not supported by any paleobotanical or literary evidence, suggesting that the artists either imported the fruits or saw them in the East.2

    The first clear literary evidence of the lemon tree in any language dates from the early tenth-century Arabic work by Qustus al-Rumi in his book on farming.3 At the end of the twelfth century, Ibn Jami’, the personal physician to the great Muslim leader Saladin, wrote a treatise on the lemon, after which it is mentioned with greater frequency in the Mediterranean.4

    Egyptians of the fourteenth century knew of the lemon. Most peasants drank a date-and-honey wine. Along the Egyptian Mediterranean coast, people drank kashkab, a drink made of fermented barley and mint, rue, black pepper, and citron leaf.5 It appears that the all-American summer drink, lemonade, may have had its origin in medieval Egypt. Although the lemon originates farther to the east, and lemonade may very well have been invented in one of the eastern countries, the earliest written evidence of lemonade comes from Egypt. The first reference to the lemon in Egypt is in the chronicles of the Persian poet and traveler Nasir-i-Khusraw (1003-1061?), who left a valuable account of life in Egypt under the Fatamid caliph al-Mustansir (1035-1094). The trade in lemon juice was quite considerable by 1104. We know from documents in the Cairo Geniza--records of the medieval Jewish community in Cairo from the tenth through thirteenth centuries--that bottles of lemon juice, qatarmizat, were made with lots of sugar and consumed locally and exported.6

1. Giacosa, Ilaria Gozzini, A Taste of Ancient Rome. Anna Herklotz, trans. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994: 12; Pliny, Natural History, Book XII, vii. 15, who is clear in stating that the fruit is not eaten, so it surely is not the lemon. Also see Andrew M. Watson Agricultural Innovation in the Early Islamic World: The Diffusion of Crops and Farming Techniques, 700-1100. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983: 42-50.

2. Dalby, Andrew. Siren Feasts: A History of Food and Gastronomy in Greece. London and New York: Routledge. 1996: 144 repeats the view of Tolkowsky, S. Hesperides: A History of the Culture and Use of Citrus Fruits. London: John Bale, Sons and Curnow, 1938: 100-103, which is strange because he has already told the reader that that source is unsound (252 n. 34) and although he seems to be aware of the compelling argument against this notion in Zohary, Daniel and Marcia Hopf. Domestication of Plants in the Old World: The Origin and Spread of Cultivated Plants in West Asia, Europe, and the Nile Valley. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988, he does not go further and seems unaware of the argument in Watson 1983.

3. Watson 1983: 42-50; 167 n. 1-171 n. 49. On the controversy about the relationship of this work with the Byzantine Geoponika of the tenth century, see Watson 1983: 221 n. 1.

4. Watson 1983: 46, citing Sarton, George. Introduction to the History of Science. vol. 1: From Homer to Omar Khayyam. Baltimore: William & Wilkins for the Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1927: (2) 432-33.

5. Ashtor, E. "Essai sur l'alimentation des diverses classes sociales dans l'Orient médiéval," Annales: Économies. Sociétés. Civilisations. vol. 23 no. 5 (September-October 1968), p. 1041 claims that the Egyptians, although they knew of the lemon, did not yet know it as a popular and drinkable fruit. But the evidence (in the following note) indicates otherwise.

6. Watson 1983: 46, 169 n. 28; Sarton 1927: (1) 468; Goitein, S. D. A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967 vol. I: Economic Foundations: 121; 428 n. 42.