When life hands you Meyer lemons, life is sweet

O bright, tender orb
that lights winter's
darkest days,
please linger longer!

A little longer, yes, but not much. Meyer lemon season, roughly November through March, soon will be coming to a close. So carpe that diem, diners, and get your mitts on some Meyers.

True, they haven't been easy to find. I'd read about them longingly for years before spying a pile at Whole Foods last winter and quickly became a Meyer lemon junkie. Because just about anything a regular lemon can do the juicier, sweeter, rounder, thin-skinned Meyer can do, only better: You can eat the yellow-orange rind, which, when fully ripe, takes on a beautiful, rosy glow.

Meyer lemon marmalade was a hit with friends and family at Christmas, and through the year I tapped that jar of preserved lemons in the fridge, slicing and dicing them into rice and couscous. They're a breeze to make and have a long fridge-life, about a year. Once hooked on Meyers, you'll find yourself scouring cookbooks and the Internet for ways to use them: in tarts, mousses, cakes, scones, sorbets, salsas, lemon bars, limoncello and tapenade; grated over pasta or simply candied in sugar or honey.

There may be no such thing as the mythical cabbit (cat + rabbit), but the Meyer lemon is the equally fantastic offspring of, presumably, a lemon and an orange, or mandarin orange. It carries the name of Frank N. Meyer, a consultant to the U.S. agriculture department who found it growing near Beijing, China, on a plant-scouting mission in 1908. The Meyer lemon was widely grown in California before the 1940s, but when it was discovered that it was a symptomless carrier of a virus that was killing other citrus, the Meyer was banned in some citrus-growing areas.

Back in the day ...
Before Meyer lemons were commercially available, California restaurants and food shops relied on the goodwill of customers who would bring in their own backyard crops, sometimes in exchange for meals or goods. Though fewer do so today, some still do. According to a recent post on apartmenttherapy.com by HaveForkWillTravel, Phoenix Pastificio, the acclaimed Berkeley-based pasta company, has a sign at its Berkeley Farmer's Market booth offering to barter for Meyers.
-- China Millman

Then, a breakthrough. In the 1950s, Joe Grimshaw, and Floyd and son Don Dillon of Four Winds Growers in Fremont, Calif., discovered at Grimshaw's nursery a virus-free clone. It was developed, certified and in 1975 released as the Improved Meyer Lemon by the University of California, Riverside. All Meyers grown commercially today in the U.S. are descendants of that specimen.

"Meyer lemons are sweet, thin-skinned and famous for their ethereal perfume. Although common in California backyards, they are just beginning to be commercialized. Ask your friends or relatives in California to send you some," Alice Waters wrote in her "Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook" in 1999.

A decade later you don't have to beg, thanks in part to Ms. Waters' championing of the Meyer and to more growers entering commercial production.

Most Meyer lemons are grown in California, but Meyers from Texas and Florida also end up on Pittsburgh tables, said Allen Tingley, in-store produce buyer at Whole Foods in East Liberty, which sells about one-fourth as many Meyer lemons as conventional lemons when Meyers are in season.

The largest California grower is Dresick Farms in Huron, in the San Joaquin Valley, with 105 acres soon expanding to 175. The next largest grower is significantly smaller, with 20 acres in production, and many growers have only 3 to 10 acres, said Jason Stemm of the Meyer Lemon Information Bureau. Only eight California growers have 10 acres or more.

Organic Meyer lemons do not seem to be available in stores here, probably because they are even more perishable than non-organic Meyers, which are more tender than thicker-skinned varieties such as Eureka and Lisbon. Clean your lemons thoroughly with a veggie scrub brush under running water before using them.

Organic Meyers can be ordered online from small growers such as Karen Morss, who planted her Lemon Ladies Orchard in Emerald Hills, Calif., south of San Francisco, in 2004. The first harvest of her 40 backyard trees -- each named for a woman who inspired her and helped her achieve her goals -- came in 2007.

Ms. Morss, a Philadelphia native who previously owned a software business and a flight school, planned to subdivide her  3/4-acre property to finance her retirement.

When zoning regulations made that impractical, this Meyer lemon lover had another idea. From Four Winds Growers she bought 40 dwarf Meyer lemon trees and planted them in her south-facing, gently sloping back yard. For the first three years, she and two neighborhood girls picked off all of the blossoms so the trees would put their energy into growing roots, not making fruit.

During the 2007-08 season, those 40 trees produced 6,000 pounds of fruit, sold to local markets and restaurants and online through localharvest.org and her own Web site, lemonladies.com. Because she's a small grower who can let the fruit ripen on the tree, her season goes from August to May.

Her dwarf trees have a single trunk with many branches, producing a shrub-like evergreen with thorns almost 3 inches long.

"Boy, they are self-protective little trees," said Ms. Morss, who has hundreds of customers from Alaska to Maine.

Six lemons are $15, including shipping and priority mail shipping; seven pounds are $45 and 10 pounds, $60.

She picks on Sundays, ships on Mondays; my box arrived on Wednesday. Long after I'd closeted them in the fridge, I kept going back to the box for another hit of lemon scent.

Ms. Morss likes her Meyers in lemonade (she freezes the juice to enjoy in summer) and lemon marmalade, now made for her by a commercial kitchen and marketed on her Web site.

"They make wonderful salad dressing. My husband thinks I use them in every single meal that I serve to him. I had yellow peppers on the pizza the other night and he said, 'No, you're not putting Meyer lemons on the pizza!' "

Why not? San Francisco's Piccino cafe serves a white pizza with rapini, pine nuts, Meyer lemon and chili oil. I made one with caramelized onions, yellow peppers, garlic, thinly sliced Meyer lemons, oil-cured olives (their sweetness balances the lemons) and Katz's fabulous Meyer lemon olive oil, found at Pennsylvania Macaroni.

As you might expect, Meyers are more expensive than the widely grown varieties and the price varies. At Whole Foods and Right by Nature in the Strip District, they're $2.99 per pound for about four lemons; you can also find them at other stores, including Giant Eagle Market District in Bethel Park and Shadyside ($3.99 for a 1-pound bag of Frieda's), and McGinnis Sisters Monroeville ($4.99/pound).

Casbah pastry chef Julie Martin recently added to the Shadyside restaurant's dessert menu a lovely, bright-tasting Meyer Lemon Tiramisu. She layers Meyer lemon mousse between round, ladyfinger-like cakes soaked in Meyer lemon syrup, all topped with shavings of white chocolate.

"It's rich yet light at the same time," said Chef Alan Peet.

"We like the flavor [of the Meyer] better than a regular lemon. They're sweeter and you get a little tang in there."

Visit post-gazette.com/food for the recipe.

On these pages you'll find recipes for Alice Waters' Meyer lemon relish, Meyer lemon marmalade, preserved Meyer lemons and a couscous dish to use them in, and an easy Meyer lemon pudding cake.

On this St. Valentine's weekend, think of them as sweet-tart treats for your sweetheart.

Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590. First Published February 12, 2009 5:00 AM


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