Food and Drink: Squeeze the fruit until the pith squeaks: The best lemons are heavy, bumpy and blemished. Turn them into drinks, garnishes and nursery puddings or even chew them raw

FOR YEARS I have believed that the white pith of lemons and other citrus fruits is bitter. It is a 'fact' that every cook picks up along the way, and one I had never questioned until a few weeks ago. Work had taken us to Favignana, a small island off the western coast of Sicily, where my husband made friends with a motley group of fishermen. The island's lemons are rightly famous: big and lumpy, filled with tart, aromatic juice, golden when not roughly blemished, and very thick-skinned.

I watched as the burliest fisherman of them all chewed on a large wedge of lemon pith, assiduously peeled clean of the yellow zest. 'There's macho for you,' I thought, as I imagined a mouthful of intense bitterness. But when I nibbled cautiously on the piece he proffered, to my amazement it was mildly flavoured and a pleasure to eat.

At first I attributed this to the particular variety of lemon; but curiosity has led me to sample the pith of the glorious Amalfi lemons that Safeways is importing, and the slivers of white that one can just about extract from commoner thin-skinned lemons, and I now realise that what bitterness there is lies only directly underneath the yellow zest; the rest of the fruit is entirely edible in its raw state.

If you should be lucky enough to find a clutch of lemons with thick bands of white between zest and interior, you might try using it in a salad, such as the one described by Mary Taylor Simeti in her superbly well-

researched and beautifully written book Sicilian Food (published by Century in 1989, though absurdly already out of print): 'pith and flesh cut into thin slices and mixed with slices of sweet fennel, some good oil, salt and pepper'.

No one can question the importance of lemons in cooking. There is no substitute for this endlessly useful fruit, and no limit to its uses. I was shocked, when demonstrating at a catering college, to be handed a bottle of lemon juice when I had asked for four lemons. For a start, bottled juice lacks the fragrance and tartness of freshly squeezed juice; and then one is deprived of the aromatic yellow zest that is just as important a component in cooking.

Lemons become doubly important in summer when a plentiful supply is essential in my kitchen. Sorry to say, I am clean out of them at the moment, after a weekend of hot weather when we drank our way through jug after jug of iced lemonade. A couple more went on marinades and salad drassings, and by Sunday the bowl was empty. But by the time you read this, I shall have restocked.

If you wish to use the outer zest of a lemon, it pays to search for unwaxed fruit, now sold in many supermarkets. The majority of lemons are treated with a transparent coating to prevent them from drying out, so they should be scrubbed under the warm tap, at the risk of dispersing some of the oils trapped in their skin. The downside of unwaxed lemons, however, is that they do not keep for long and must be used quickly.

Waxed or unwaxed, look for lemons that are firm all over and feel heavy in the hand, indicating that they are full of juice. Do not be beguiled by seeming perfection; large, bumpy, unevenly shaped lemons, with odd blemishes and rough spots (but not soft patches that are beginning to moulder) are usually the best choice.

Processor Lemonade

This is the way I usually make lemonade on a hot day when I am gasping for a refreshing drink. It is quick and easy and the flavour is good, though not quite as nice as that of lemonade made by the traditional method.

You need lemons, sugar and water. Slice off the ends of the lemons and discard. Cut up the rest - zest, pith, flesh and all - into rough chunks over the bowl of the processor, dropping in the pieces. Add a generous sprinkling of sugar and enough water to reach about half-way up the lemon chunks. Process to a sludge, then strain off the juice through a sieve, pressing down gently to extract the liquid. Return the lemon debris to the processor, add roughly the same amount of water as you did before, and process again for a few seconds. Strain into the first lot of juice.

Now taste the lemonade: if it is still too sharp to drink, return the lemon debris to the processor for a third time, add extra sugar and water, and repeat the processing and straining. Once the balance is about right, pour into a jug and chill.

Traditional Lemonade

This is the finest of all lemonades with an intense, lemony, slightly bitter taste.

Makes about 1 1/2 pints (0.8l)

Ingredients: 3 lemons

2oz (60g) sugar lumps

mint leaves or borage to serve

Preparation: Rub the lumps of sugar over the zest of the lemons until all the aromatic oils are drawn out and the sugar is saturated. As each lump is used up, drop into a large bowl. Slice the lemons thinly, peel and all, and add to the bowl. Pour 1 1/2 pints of boiling water over the fruit and sugar, and leave to steep for at least 12 hours and up to 24. Strain.

Serve well chilled, with mint leaves or borage leaves floating on top.

Carioca de Limao

A Portuguese alternative to the hefty kick of a strong after-dinner coffee, Carioca de Limao is a simple form of lemon tea, very soothing and light. Just put a couple of strips of freshly pared lemon zest in a cup and pour over boiling water. Leave for a couple of minutes to infuse, sweeten with a little sugar or honey if you wish, then drink.

Baked Hake with Lemon and Tomato

Cooked fish needs lemon to highlight its delicate flavour, and in this recipe they both go into the oven together.

Serves 4

Ingredients: 1 hake weighing 2-2 1/2 lb (0.9-1.35kg), cleaned and scaled

12oz (340g) tomatoes, skinned and sliced

1 lemon, thinly sliced

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

3tbs olive oil

1tbs finely chopped chives

1tbs finely chopped parsley

salt and pepper

Preparation: Make three slashes across the thickest part of the fish on both sides, so that it cooks evenly in the heat of the oven. Oil an ovenproof dish lightly, and arrange the tomato slices and half the lemon slices in it. Sprinkle with the garlic and season with salt and pepper. Sit the fish on top, curling it round to fit nicely. Season again, and arrange remaining lemon slices on top. Spoon two tablespoons of water (or white wine if you have some to spare) around the fish. Drizzle over the oil.

Bake at 180C/350F/gas 4 for about 30 minutes, basting occasionally with its own juices, until just cooked through. Scatter with parsley and chives and serve immediately.

Gremolata

One of the easiest ways to inject life and vigour into practically any savoury dish is to sprinkle it with Italian gremolata shortly before serving. A gremolata is a mixture of finely chopped lemon zest, parsley and garlic. Proportions can, of course, be varied according to taste and use, but this is roughly what I go for:

Ingredients: finely grated zest 1 lemon

2-3tbs roughly chopped parsley

1 large or 2 small cloves garlic, roughly chopped

Preparation: Mix ingredients, then, with a sharp knife, chop them exceedingly finely. Use within at least the next hour.

Lemon Honeycomb Mould

I have loved this pudding ever since I was a child. It is a magical concoction that looks, with its three different layers, as if hours have been spent on the preparation. In fact, the one lemony custard mixture separates naturally into layers - clear jelly on top, milky cream jelly in the middle and mousse on the bottom - as it sets.

Serves 6

Ingredients: finely grated zest and juice of 2 large lemons

3/4 pint (425ml) milk

3 eggs, separated

1 sachet (0.4oz/11g) powdered gelatine

3oz (85g) caster sugar

4 pints (150ml) single cream

Preparation: Infuse lemon zest with the milk over a very low heat for 15 minutes. Whisk the egg yolks lightly with the sugar, cream and gelatine in a bowl, and gradually whisk in the hot milk. Place over a pan of simmering water (making sure that the base of the bowl does not touch the water) and stir until the mixture begins to thicken, by which time the gelatine will have dissolved completely.

Draw off the heat, and stir in the lemon juice. Strain. Whisk the egg whites until stiff, and fold into the warm custard. Dampen a 2-pint (1-litre) jelly mould and pour in the mixture. Leave in the fridge to set.

To serve, run the tip of a thin-bladed knife around the edge of the jelly to loosen, then invert on to a plate. It should plop out easily to reveal its three layers.

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