From a cook’s perspective, Greeks own the lemon! The way Italians, say, own the tomato.
Lemons are without doubt one of the defining flavors of Greek cuisine and together with olive oil, oregano and garlic make for a seminal part of the quartet that can Hellenize almost any recipe.
Despite the ubiquity of lemon in Greek cooking, the fruit, known scientifically as Citrus Medica, is not exactly a native, although it’s been part of the Greek foodscape and landscape from at least the 1st century AD, when Arab traders first introduced it to the Mediterranean. Lemons are thought to have originated in India. By the 4th century, they were a common sight in Sicily and Spain.
Today, lemons are one of the most commercially important fruits cultivated in Greece. They account for 18% of the total citrus fruit in the country. Most lemons are consumed locally. A small portion of the cultivation goes to the juice industry and to exports. The major production areas are in the Crete and Peloponnese — indeed, a whole swath of land along the eastern coast, just across the island of Poros, is known locally as the lemon forest, or lemonodassos. Lemons in Greec are mainly a winter fruit, but at least one species is a late comer, bearing a delicious, thick-skinned, plump fruit in the summer.
In the Greek kitchen, lemons play a part in countless dishes, but star in two of the most well-known: the classic Greek egg-lemom sauce and soup, called avgolemono, and in the classic emulsion of olive oil, lemon juice, salt, oregano and the occasional chopped garlic clove, called ladolemono, which is the de riguer mixture Greeks like to drizzle over grilled fish.
Lemons, quartered or cut into wedges and raw, stand alone as a seasoning, squeezed fresh over grilled meats, grilled chicken kebabs, fava (yellow split pea puree), bean salads, green salads and more. Lemons are a natural partner to all the herbs that perfume the Greek countryside and the kitchen, among them thyme, savory, marjoram, basil, organo, of course, and rosemary. Lemons are a natural partner to the uber Greek spice, mastiha, one of the Mediterranean’s most exotic, seductive flavors.
Acidic lemons are the binding agent in many a marinade. In recent years, chefs have taken to making their own Greek version of ceviche and carpaccio, using tangy lemon juice to “cook” raw seafood and fish.
Lemon has its own intense flavor but also plays a supporting role when combined with other food. Lemon juice makes pie pastries tender when baked, for example, and is often the acid that home cooks use when making their own phyllo, for much the same reason.
Lemon is a great flavor enhancer. When you use it as such, you can reduce the amount of salt in a given dish. It’s the balancing act, too, that counters fatty meats and fish (lemon and salmon, for example, are delicious together).
But lemons are also the stuff of pastries and desserts in Greece, from not-so-classic lemon pies, the rage in Athens for years now, to the protagonist and/or supporting act in jams, marmalades, and spoon sweets. In the syrup-drenched desserts and pastries for which Greece is well-known, lemon juice and zest are both important additions to the simple syrups, keeping them from crystallizing but also lending a subtle balance to their innate, cloying sweetness.
Check out Recipe of the Week for suggestions on Cooking with Lemon.