KITCHENALIA: THE LEMON SQUEEZER

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The Independent Culture
There was a time, before the words "Med-iterranean diet" had become a marketing mantra, when lemon juice was sold in bright yellow plastic lemons. It now seems incredible that anyone should ques-tion that the natural skin was not the best container for the juice of a lemon. And why was squeezing a lemon seen as so arduous that we needed to pay a factory to do it for us?

Your hand is the simplest lemon squeezer, and whether you cut a lemon into halves or wedges first, or just make a small hole at one end, you'll find that the juice runs out more freely if you leave the fruit in a warm place for a few hours beforehand to soften the peel. Once cut, though, a lemon should be kept in the refrigerator to maintain its freshness. But when speed and efficiency are called for, or when squeezing a large quantity of fruit, a well-designed lemon squeezer is an essential piece of kitchen equipment.

A wooden reamer with a ridged head and smooth handle is the oldest kind of lemon squeezer; you press it into the cut side of the fruit, rotating it to release the juice. Of course, the pips and pulp also fall into the food unless you strain them out. Smooth, new birch wood reamers are available in kitchenware shops at around pounds 2.50 each.

At under a pound, the cheapest lemon squeezer is the Victorian-style moulded glass version. Its central reamer is encircled with a palisade of studs that strain the pips and some of the pulp from the juice in the saucer. The same kind of lemon squeezer made from gleaming stainless steel is, at pounds 12, one of Marks and Spencer's best sellers.

How odd then that a milky white plastic version of the Victorian classic squeezer costs three times the price of the glass reproduction. But then plastic can be exorbitantly expensive these days to judge by the ridiculously priced (pounds 7.50) but oh-so-kitsch cactus-style lemon squeezer that's culled a good few column inches this year and is widely available. I also find its performance rather disappointing since the edges of the reamer are too rounded.

A similarly much-hyped lemon squeezer is the spider-legged, hand-operated version designed by Philippe Starck in 1988 and sold at the fashion-victim price of pounds 41. Moreover, since it is manufactured from aluminium which reacts with citrus juice, I wouldn't relish the results - even the makers advise that if the squeezer is not used regularly it could produce lemon juice with an off flavour.

There are several other expensive hand-operated lemon squeezers now available, but even though some are constructed from non-reactive stainless steel their design makes them better suited to a cocktail bar than the average working kitchen.

What would the Reverend Sydney Smith, the 18th-century bon viveur, who famously defined a civilised existence as being in proximity to a supply of fresh lemons, have had to say about a lemon squeezer that costs pounds 90? In Oxford's highly civilised Covered Market this morning, a good sized lemon cost 20p and it has produced - using a simple glass squeezer - 50ml of strained juice.

Funnily enough, I recall another gentleman of the cloth, known to television audiences in the Seventies as the Cooking Canon, getting excited about lemons. In his case, it was caused by a newfangled squee-zer, a double- sided plastic contraption that squashed each cut half of the fruit so that the juice could run straight out through a spout. I understand that this nutcracker-like squee-zer is still available in some kitchenware shops for under pounds 5.

In hot countries where citrus juice is taken seriously, an electric juicer is regarded as vital in the kitchen. Equipped with such a machine, freshly squee-zed orange juice can be produced in a trice.

The simple Moulinex electric citrus press costs under pounds 15; it has an rotating plastic reamer, an efficient strainer and its gauged container holds 0.6 litre. The Braun version, at pounds 17.75, is similar with the addition of a grill for controlling the amount of pulp in the squeezed juice. The Philips electric citrus press costs pounds 30 and is fitted with a lever armed to hold the fruit in place while the juice is extracted. All these machines work well with citrus fruit of all sizes from tiny clementines to large grapefruit.

For the best flavour, squeeze citrus juice immediately before serving so that it also contains its full complement of vitamins. And to give variety to this most appetising drink, try citrus blends such as tangerine juice enlivened with a dash of lime, or orange mixed with the juice of ruby grapefruit.

TARTE AU CITRON

Serves 6

For the 22cm/8-9in shortcrust pastry tart case:

170g/6oz plain flour

50g/2oz vanilla-flavoured castor sugar

120g/4oz butter

1 egg yolk blended with 1 tablespoon cold water

For the filling:

100ml/312fl oz freshly squeezed lemon juice, strained

80g/3oz castor sugar

3 size-two eggs

1 egg yolk

100ml/312fl oz creme fraiche

1 teaspoon icing sugar

Rub the butter into the flour and sugar, then mix to a dough with the egg yolk blended with water. Roll out thinly and line a tart tin. Brush pastry with a teaspoon of beaten egg and prick with a fork lightly all over. Bake the tart case blind in the oven at 200C/400F/Gas 6 until golden, then leave in the tart tin to cool.

Preheat oven to 160C/325F/Gas 3 and place a baking sheet on the centre shelf. Use a wooden whisk or spoon to mix the lemon juice with sugar, ideally in a large jug. Gradually whisk in the eggs and yolk and then the creme fraiche. Place the tart tin containing the pastry case on the hot baking sheet and carefully pour the lemon mixture into the tart case, it should just fill it. Bake tart for 30 to 40 minutes until the centre is just set. Remove from oven and leave to cool in the tin. Remove the side of the tin and place the tart, still on its metal base, on a level serving plate or wooden board. Spoon the icing sugar into a fine sieve and lightly dust the top of the tart. Serve warm or cold.

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