As Charmaine O’Brien points out in her book The Colonial Kitchen, Margaret Pearson’s Lemon Pickle recipe reminds us that the relatively recent trend for ‘Moroccan preserved lemons’ is not new to Australian tables at all. The principle difference between the recipe published by Pearson in the 1880s and our idea of Moroccan-style lemons – such as students make in education programs at Vaucluse House – is that the colonial version uses vinegar as well as salt. This means that fewer lemons are required, as the salt-heavy Levantine style also needs a sizable volume of lemon juice, in addition to what is drawn from the lemons in the salting process.
A cut above
Another characteristic of the Moroccan-style lemons we make today is the way they are cut, quartered from the top down, but not cutting them right through. Pearson’s recipes has us cutting the lemons into quarters, which might be seen as a ‘cheating’; it is certainly makes for easier handling salting.
Even in the 1880s, preserving lemons was far from a new trend. A quick ‘audit’ of the stash of period cookbooks on my desk show pickled lemons recipes in Mrs Beeton’s Book of household management from 1861, Eliza Acton’s Modern cookery, from 1845, Maria Rundell’s Domestic cookery in 1816, Elizabeth Raffald’s Experienced Housekeeper from 1769 and Elizabeth Smith’s The Compleat Housewife from 1753. All use vinegar – those that specify all say to use white wine vinegar – but interestingly, with the exception of Rundell, who cuts them into eighths, each is faithful to the partial cutting method. Eliza Acton describes the process best, ‘
‘make, at equal distances, four deep incisions in each, from the stalk to the blossom end, but without dividing the fruit; stuff them with as much salt as they will contain, lay them into a deep dish, and place them in a sunny window, or in some warm place for a week or ten days…’
Interestingly, Beeton and Raffald remove the peel from the lemons before salting them, and even more curiously, Smith says to ‘scrape them with a piece of broken glass’ before cutting them open to receive the salt.
The spice trail
The spices used vary a little, although most include cloves, garlic, pepper, mace and/or nutmeg and mustard seed, which is consistent with Mrs Pearson’s version. Some also ask for cayenne or ‘red Indian pepper’ (chilli), and Acton’s also says to use ginger and turmeric. In her ‘Obs.‘ (observations) note below her recipe she says that ‘the turmeric and garlic may, we think, be omitted from this pickle with advantage‘. Some recipes use ground spices, others whole, or ‘bruised’ and tied in a muslin bag. The origins of the salting technique are not given – garlic, chilli, ginger and mustard but especially turmeric suggest India, which is known for its spiced lime pickle; lemons may be an English adaptation. Alternatively, the technique could have North African origins, and have come into England via Spain or Portugal, which are known for their use of vinegar in ‘sauce piquante’ and Goan Vindaloo curries (vin being the characterising vinegar element), for example, and again, returns us to India as an influence.
None of the recipes say how the pickle should be used; one assumes it was used in place of fresh lemon when they were out of season. Mrs Beeton gives the good suggestion of using the liquor ‘strained and bottled, and will be found an excellent lemon ketchup‘. Given the pep that chilli vinegar brings to all manner of savoury dishes – rice and chicken in particular, the pickled lemon vinegar ‘liquor’ would be a similarly welcome condiment.