Citrus fruit is grown extensively in Sicily and citrus groves are found throughout the island region. Apart from different types of oranges (including the blood oranges) there are mandarins, tangerines, lemons, cedri (citrons) and limette (Sicilian limes).
Sicily is one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of citrus especially of lemons; the climate fosters a long, growing season and the harvesting of different varieties of lemons over three distinct periods in the year.
Lemons are extensively used in Sicilian cuisine – fresh lemon juice and the rind (or grated zest) are added to savoury or sweet dishes to balance and enhance flavours and even the leaves are often used in between pieces of meat or fish to add flavour.
Lemon juice is often used in marinates and to avoid discolouration of fresh fruit and vegetables (for example in fruit salads or when cleaning artichokes).
Lemons are used profusely for making drinks, liqueurs, essences, jams and marmalades. Candied or preserved peel is used significantly in Sicilian pastries and confectionary (for example in cassata and cannoli).
Used also and mostly in Sicilian pastries is cedro (citron). This citrus fruit grows in Sicily (and Calabria); the fruit is large and spherical with a thick wrinkled skin that turns from green to yellow during ripening. It has a strong fragrance and flavour, even stronger than lemons. The thick peel is candied and the fruit and peel is used to make a sweet paste also used in Sicilian patisserie.
Sicily benefits greatly from the production of lemons. Lemons have anti-bactericidal and antiseptic qualities; they are known for their therapeutic properties and are therefore beneficial in aromatherapy, pharmacology and medical and scientific applications. The essential oils are prominent in perfumes and the cosmetic industry. They are also widely used in cleaning products and citric acid (derived from lemons) is used extensively as a preservative.
The flowers and leaves are used for ornamental purposes. The white and pale violet blossoms have a strong and appealing scent and are often used in bride’s bouquets and inserted in button holes in men’s jackets at weddings.
When Sicilians (and other southern Italians) came to Australia, one of the first thing they planted was a lemon tree. Many are grafted to produce different types of lemons or different citrus.
You may be familiar with making Sicilian orange salads (especially with blood oranges), but you may not have considered enjoying a Sicilian lemon salad. I particularly like serving a lemon salad as an accompaniment to grilled fish, especially sardines. Last time I made one I presented it to accompany a meat terrine made with pork.
Use large, mature lemons – the larger, the more pith, the better. Many of the large lemons are more round in shape.
You will be amazed by the sweetness of the lemon in the salad. The use of salt will make the lemons taste sweeter (just like balsamic vinegar brings out the sweetness of strawberries).
Peel the skin off the lemons with a potato peeler, leaving as much pith as possible.
Cut the lemons in half and squeeze out some of the juice (otherwise the salad will be too acidic).
Cut the lemons into quarters and then into slices or manageable chunks (slices cut into four). Remove any pips.
Add finely chopped parsley or mint.
Dress with extra virgin olive oil, freshly ground pepper and salt.