Friday, 9 March 2012

From one pot to another

Last May, a year after conceding that I would settle for one lemon tree in a pot on the patio rather than a crumbing villa in a citrus grove in Tuscany (A classical education with zest) a large and heavy container arrives. It contains  a five foot high lemon tree bearing both blossom and fruit - a present from husband Rod to mark a significant birthday.

The tree spends the summer in its traditional terracotta pot on the patio in London, the flowers scenting the air and the lemons growing larger. The first fruit is ceremonially picked and sliced for a celebratory gin and tonic. Three more are used to make a lemon tart. The tree is fed with citrus food, the new growth pinched out according to instructions and when the temperature finally drops in December, is brought in to overwinter under the glass roof of the kitchen extension. 

That's when we discover the challenge of cultivating this wonderful fruit.  Leaves begin to fall with alarming and increasing frequency. Consultation with the experts revealed that this could be too much water, or not enough water. Or that the tree was too warm - the temperature should not rise above 12 degrees - challenging in any room in a normal home. Or that the air was too dry. All commentators advise not to panic.

We then identify that the tree is under attack from red spider mite (a bug new to us) and we go into battle, every morning removing microscopic eggs and mites with an artist's paintbrush and a weak solution of washing up liquid followed by copious spraying with the same mixture. This seems to be working. We watch the outside temperature beginning to rise,  and look forward to returning the lemon tree to its sheltered spot on the patio - with a roll of horticultural fleece on hand for swaddling in the event of late frost.

Meanwhile the three largest fruit on the tree continue to grow larger, but remain green rather than yellow. Assured by our friend Liz, who has several lemon trees growing lustily in the Dordogne, that they will still taste good, I pick them. 

Mindful that these may be the last of the homegrown fruits for some time, I decide to make that old-fashioned preserve, lemon curd. Eggs and sugar are beaten, butter melted, lemons zested and squeezed and the mixture stirred gently over simmering water until it turns to a shining, wonderfully fragrant emulsion. The lemon curd now sits in its sterilised pots in the fridge, ready to make a special tart or transform a simple sponge cake.  Sunshine in a jar.