Sunday, 17 June 2012

Limes: history, trivia and limeade

"It is a wonder that the lime, with its abundance of acid and only 1 percent sugar, managed to propagate itself at all before the invention of the cocktail, especially because it stays an invisible camouflage green."
from The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten

Last week Sylvia and I made limeade (recipe at the end) with some of the limes from our tree.  It seemed an excellent opportunity to feature limes.  It was a wee bit confusing because not only did I have to disregard the colour and the products of limestone, but also I found that often lemon and limes are written about together.  (Probably not surprising seeing that their names come from the same Arabic word - "limun").

What seems clear is that when compared to lemons, lime juice is sharper and more aromatic.  They flourish in the tropics.  Which explains why they are so important in the South East Asian, Mexican and Carribbean cuisines.

Lime history
Further confusion was encountered in seeking the history of limes.  It seems there are different species and it was sometimes hard to work out which was being referred to.  The Mexican/Key Limes origin seems to be agreed as South East Asian, probably Malaysia or Indonesia.  The origin of the Persian/Tahitian Limes is variously referred to as The Orient, India, and Persia.

It is clearer that the lime has travelled widely.  It appears to have been brought to the eastern Mediterranean and African countries by the Arabs in AD 1000, and to Western Mediterranean countries by Crusaders returning home in the 12th and 13th Centuries.  There is some evidence that lime seeds were taken to the West Indies in 1493 by Christopher Columbus.  The Portuguese took the lime to Brazil.  It was first grown in large quantities in Persia and commercially in Babylonia (today known as Iraq).

Mosaics of lemon and lime trees have been found in remains of Roman villas.  The first mention of limes in Western literature was apparently by Sir Thomas Herbert (Travels, 1677), who spoke of finding "oranges, lemons, and limes" on the island of Mohelia off Mozambique.

Lime seems to star most brightly in British history in preventing scurvy (caused by lack of vitamin C) in sailors.  Despite lemons having more vitamin C, lime juice seems to have been used more.  I found two reasons.  Limes grow better in the tropics and when ships passed through such areas, limes were easier to find.  Another site claimed that the Mediterranean countries that grew lemons were often at war with Britain so they would turn to colonies that produced limes.

Whatever the reasons, in 1867, the Merchant Shipping Act was passed, whereby all vessels, Royal Navy and Merchant, were required to carry lime juice for a daily ration to ships' company.  In the same year Rose's lime juice cordial was patented and the next year the first factory to produce the drink was established in Edinburgh.  British sailors were referred to as Limeys.  The Limehouse areas of London's docks was named from warehouses that stored limes which were brought from the West Indies.

Following World War I the Tahitian lime became a well-established commercial crop in America. There was market resistance at first because it was seen as a “green lemon.”  Today it is more common than key limes in America.

Limes in Australian History
When I thought of my memory of limes two things came to mind.  The first was lime spiders, which contain neither fruit nor insects.  The second was an Aussie folk song called Lime Juice Tub.  I've always loved the line "With a ra-dum ra-dum rub-a-dub-dub / Send him home in a lime juice tub".  Now that I have started looking into lime history, it makes a lot of sense.

School children in Australia were taught about Captain Cook overcoming scurvy by having limes available.  Less well known is that the First Fleet brought lime trees with them from Brazil en route to Sydney Cove in 1788.  According to George B Worgan they didn't flourish.  In The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser in 1824, limes are noted to be part of the diverse horticulture and Persian limes are noted to be a recent introduction (despite my understanding that it was Tahitian or Persian limes brought to Australia in 1788).

In the Cook's Companion, Stephanie Alexander says that the main season for limes in Australia is Autumn (which is odd as my tree produces twice a year) and that the Mexican lime is rarely seen in Australia.  She also discusses the native limes that are being developed as a commercially available fruit.  Finger limes and other bush limes have been used as a food by Aboriginal people for thousands of years but many of the trees were cleared as part of the European settlement.

Limes in music, film and literature
Limes are so often a support act rather than the star in recipes that perhaps it is no surprise to find that I had to think laterally to find much relating to them in the arts.

Perhaps the best known song featuring lime is the Harry Nilsson song Put the Lime in the Coconut (which I know from a Muppets version).  There is also a Canadian 1980s synth-pop band called Lime (who I had never heard of) and an Aussie band called the Lime Spiders (which comes from a drink that I have already noted has no fruit in it).  Nick Cave had a song called Lime Tree Arbour and the Beatles sang 'Oh dirty Maggie Mae they have taken her away / And she never walk down Lime Street any more'.

In film, many of us know of Harry Lime, a character in Orsen Wells The Third Man.  He also appeared in radio program The Adventures of Harry Lime.  Even more obscure is The Limejuice Mystery of Who Spay in Grandfather's Porridge, a 1930s British marionette film with Herlock Sholmes as the detective.  And, to draw an even longer bowl, the BBC made a number of shows at The Lime Grove Studios.

Limes in early literature include a reference to an Egyptian lime in the Tales from th Arabian Nights and an obscure eighteenth century Scottish poet James Thomson who wrote about 'the piercing lime'.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a poem called 'This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison'.  Apparently pickled limes were popular in nineteenth century Boston.  Amy in Little Women pines for them.  Many poets including e e cummings, Pablo Neruda, and William Butler Yeats refer to limes in their writing.

Lime trivia
Limes:
  • turn yellow as they ripen (this refers to Tahitian or Persian limes which are harvested green)
  • are good for removing turmeric stains from work surfaces and equipment>
  • may help make water drinkable in low income countries, according to researchers at John Hopkins University
  • are the smallest members of the true citrus family  
  • prevent bad breath and whiten discoloured teeth
  • are good for sore throats, especially if drunk with pineapple juice
  • would help to remove signs of smallpox, according to Hannah Woolley in 1670, who recommended mixing it with rosewater
  • are thought to be older than lemons and have contributed to their evolution (according to Stephanie Alexander)

My lime tree
We bought a lime tree in a pot for our small garden in 2007 and it was a wee scrap of a tree.  It didn't yield any fruit until last year.  Just a few limes.  This year the tree hung with many limes (maybe 20).  I find it hard to know when limes are ready to pick.  They are green so long.  Mostly I pick them when they are yellowing.  Inside they are still green.  Fortunately our Meyer lemons are so glossy and bright yellow we can tell which are limes and which are lemons quite easily.  The photos in this post show the growth of limes on our tree from buds through to cut fruit.

Limeade notes
I made limeade last week because we had lots of limes on the tree.  Squeezing the lime juice filled the kitchen with a wonderful fragrance.  It took more limes than I expected to get a cup of lime juice.  Sylvia decided that she would cut the limes for me.  She was constantly trying to catch me off my guard so she could grab the knife and cut a lime at an odd angle, whether we needed it or not.  We both loved the drink.  E was less keen and puckered up his lips when he tasted it.  I imagine this would be wonderful ice cold with mint leaves in summer.  Alas it is winter.  However, while we aren't after drinks to refresh us from hot weather, we are getting to a time of year when fresh fruit is declining and I am happy to enjoy it any way I can. 

I am sending this post to Jyoti of Pages who is hosting an event called Cool Summer Sips.

Recipes featuring lime on my blog:

Recipes featuring lime from elsewhere:

Limeade
Adapted from Simply Recipes
Makes 4-6 cups

1 cup tap water
1 cup lime juice (I used about 6 limes)
Grated zest of one lime
3/4 cup castor sugar
2-4 cups soda water
Several sprigs of fresh mint and ice blocks (optional)

Place water, sugar and zest in a small saucepan and bring to the boil.  Remove from the heat and strain out the zest with a fine sieve.  Add lime juice and cool.  Fill 1/3 to 1/2 of a glass and top up with soda water.  (It depends on how strong you like it.  I preferred 1 part lime cordial to 2 parts soda water.)  If desired, serve with mint leaves and ice blocks.

On the Stereo:
Neil Diamond: the Greatest Hits 1966-1992

24 comments:

  1. Interesting post Johanna, lots I didn't know about limes it seems. I love limes but don't buy them that often as it's very hard to get hold of unwaxed ones. I am, therefore, doubly envious of your lime tree.

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    1. Thanks Chocolette - I buy limes but it is so much nicer to use ones from our tree so I am delighted to finally get some fruit from it

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  2. Wow Johanna! Lucky you to have such a beautiful tree!! How luxurious to be able to walk out your back door, pick some limes, and make limeade:) i love limeade....especially in the summer! thanks for sharing!

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    1. Thanks GF happy tummy - I've never had iimeade before but am quite taken with it - food at the back door is a real treat :-)

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  3. I love this post more than a blog comment can convey. The information (I love that trivia list, and the history of limes, much of which I didn't know), but also that you took the time to compile it :) Thank you!

    Your limeade sounds delicious too and your tree is extremely impressive. I hope my lemon grows like that!

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    1. Thanks Kari - glad you enjoy the history - I wrote more of these history of ingredients posts when I had more time but have long hoped to get a few more up so am glad to have done another - good luck with your lemons

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  4. Oh my goodness, I think you must be my bloggy soul sister. I LOVE green, I have so many green things in my house, and I lOVE giraffes, I have dozens of them, including green ones and one like the one in your header, and I LOVE to cook! I'm vegetarian too! I will definitely be reading your blog from now on. And thanks for the info on limes, I wish we had a lime tree!

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    1. Thanks Zoe - very exciting to find another giraffe lover - I have many too - though none that have scarves - love your blog name!

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  5. Loved reading about the history of limes, there were a few bits in there I could recall but most of the info was new to me! Limeade sounds delicious and a great way to use up a surplus of fruit.

    I would love to have a lime tree as I use them so often in cooking, especially in Mexican meals. Our kaffir lime is fantastic for Asian cooking but I do regret not planting a standard lime in our garden.

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    1. Thanks Mel - I find history of ingredients amazing and entertaining - glad you enjoyed it too - am sure it is not too late to plant a lime tree - I think ours struggled in the drought but is thriving far more now the drought is over (fingers crossed)

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  6. Lime has always been my favorite citrus and this limeade of yours sounds so delicious!

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    1. Thanks Joanne - lime just seems such an exotic citrus to me because we never had it as a kid and I often wish I did because it is so much nicer than lemons :-)

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  7. My what a post, interesting facts, great tips, links and a yummy recipe, you have excelled yourself today Johanna. I am a great fan of limes myself.

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    1. Thanks Jac - am just pleased to share all the info with other lime lovers like youself

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  8. Thanks for the history of the lime. I didn't know that they eventually turn yellow. Lucky you having a lime tree.

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    1. Thanks Cakelaw - I never knew they turned yellow either until I had my tree and found they went yellow - then I was relieved to read that this was common when I started reading about limes. However it seems this only applies to the Tahitian/Persian limes

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  9. I just love limes, so much more than lemons.

    Thanks for brightening my evening with tint and flavor of a very special green. : )

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    1. Thanks Susan - I was really pleased at all the green pics on my green blog - limes are so much nicer than lemons aren't they

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  10. Johanna, how did you know that I have a stash of limes and I need some lime recipes? Also I have a sore throat and the cure all of that and some pineapple juice sounds like just the ticket! :D

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    1. Thanks Lorraine - oh enjoy your lime stash - and I hope the lime and pineapple brings so relief to your throat

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  11. I love this kind of post--so much interesting info! And it's amazing to me that you can have a LIME TREE on your back porch! I can hardly grow jalapenos in the summer (which I chose for the sole reason that I assumed no bugs would want to eat them!). Gorgeous photos. I adore limes. I recently bought preserved lemons in a jar and thought of you. . . but I fear that now it's been opened, they are no longer good anyway! ;)

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    1. Thanks Ricki - I am amazed that our lime tree has produced fruit - after the first few years I thought they would produce nothing. As for your preserved lemons I am sure they will last for ages if they are like the jar I have in the fridge

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  12. I love limes! My husband bought me a little potted lime for our aniversary this year. I think it's gonna be a couple years or so until it's big enough to produce fruit though. In the mean time I'm buying limes when I find them for a reasonable price then juicing them in my juicer and freezing the juice in ice cube trays for using in recipes. Fresh lime juice is soooo much nicer than the bottled stuff.

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    1. Thanks Shawna - good luck with the lime tree - lovely present for an anniversary - my mum advised me to freeze the lime juice but I made limeade instead :-)

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