Learning your limes

24 Mar

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limes on sale in my local Loblaws grocery store

While we were preparing for the Mad for Marmalade, Crazy for Citrus event at Fort York this February I was struck by the fact that none of the recipes that we were testing included any limes.  As a commonplace citrus fruit into today’s kitchen it seemed like either a surprising or deliberate omission.  Bridget, the Heritage Food Programme Officer at the Fort, confirmed that it was the latter.  ‘Well,’ she said, when I asked her why we weren’t making any biscuits or cakes with lime in, the recipe, ‘it’s because they didn’t use limes for cooking cakes or biscuits in the 18th or early 19th century’.

So when do limes start to become part of the baking artillery?  Today it’s impossible to come across an on-trend cookery book without some sort of recipe for a delicate lime sponge or biscuits iced with a lime infused frosting (see for example the recipe for mini lime-syrup sponges in Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess – p.242).  In fact it often feels as if limes are the 21st century sophisticated version of lemons, adding zest to sparkling water and gin and tonics, packing a punch in Mexican food or adding a sharp contrast to the sweetness of Vietnamese dishes at smart, upscale restaurants.  But I was interested to try and trace something of the lime’s culinary history.

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A gin and tonic with lime – the perfect end to a day

The fruit lime, as the OED defines, is ‘the globular fruit of the tree Citrus Medica, var. acida, smaller than the lemon and of a more acid taste; more explicitly sour lime. Its juice is much used as a beverage. Sweet lime n. Citrus Medica, var. Limetta.’ The OED’s earliest cited mention in English is in 1638 when T. Herbert writes in Some Yeares Trav. ‘The Ile [Mohelia] inricht us with many good things;..Orenges, Lemons, Lymes’.  The lime gets a brief mention in the epic poem The Task, by the 18th century writer William Cowper which talks about ‘The ruddier orange and the paler lime’.  As a cooking ingredient however it seems to get short shrift throughout the 18th and 19th century in England.  The only place where it seems to surface is when the juice is used in a beverage.  For example the London Gazette in 1704 talks about ‘A Parcel of extraordinary good Rum and Lime-juice’.  And in 1774 a P V Fithian records ‘We had after Dinner, Lime Punch and Madaira.’

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lime juice in the age of convenience shopping

Of course lime juice wasn’t only good as a mixer for alcoholic drinks.  The importance of lime juice to the British navy in the 19th century as a method of staving off attacks of scurvy for sailors going for long periods without fresh fruits and vegetables was so great that it earned sailors and by extension all Brits the sobriquet of ‘limeys’.  There’s a fascinating account of the complacency and misunderstanding which surrounded the use of lime juice (and that of other citrus fruits) to control scurvy on naval voyages on the Idle Words blog.
Lime takes time to emerge in other British culinary products.  For example it’s not until the 1930s that the reassuringly British Rose’s lime marmalade appeared. Interestingly the strength of the original Mr Rose’s business was built on supplying the British Navy with lime juice but it seems that it took him a number of years to experiment with it as flavour for marmalade.

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Rose’s lime marmalade, a nursery staple from the 1930s

In fact until relevantly recently the most likely mention of ‘lime’ in British cook books is likely to refer to the calcium oxide product, for use in cleaning and other household tasks.  Not the lovely vibrant green lime at all.  For example in Mrs Beeton’s 1861 Book of Household Management she advises that ‘To preserve bright Grates or Fire-irons from Rust’ one should ‘Make a strong paste of fresh lime and water, and with a fine brush smear it as thickly as possible over all the polished surface requiring preservation. By this simple means, all the grates and fire-irons in an empty house may be kept for months free from harm, without further care or attention.’
So back to the issue of limes in baking.  Perhaps the best known dessert recipe using limes is the iconic Key Lime Pie from Key West, Florida (anyone who watched last year’s Great British Bake Off will remember Ryan’s perfect Key Lime Pie that wowed judges Mary and Paul).  It appears that its it exact lineage has been clouded in the mists of time but most stories contain the following suggestion, that the dish originated with the cook of William Curry, the first millionaire of Key West.  The dessert used the distinctive key limes grown in the area (the 1926 storm wiped out most of the local production) and condensed milk.  The comparative isolation of the islands, without cows, meant that the only source of milk was the sweetened condensed milk, first made available by canned condensed milk in mid 19th century before the advent of modern refrigeration.  As many of the websites I looked at suggested, the smaller key limes are very different from the more familiar vibrant green lime variety and a true Key Lime Pie should be tinged a delicate yellow, not a strong green colour.

The difficulty comes when you try and pin down the first written Key Lime Pie recipe.  I’ve been looking for a number of days now without success.  A number of sources suggested that I wouldn’t have any success pre-1930 and so I began looking at a number of American classics from The Joy of Cooking and Fannie Farmer’s Boston cookbook to James Beard’s American cookery.  None of them contains a recipe for Key Lime Pie.  The very helpful woman in the Cookbook Store, Toronto pointed out to me that it might well be that the recipe first appeared on the back of a condensed milk tin.

In fact finding any recipe using limes for much of the 20th century is tricky.  I felt hopeful when I looked at the promisingly titled Zestful recipes for every meal: Pure Gold and Silver Seal oranges, lemons, grapefruit published in California sometime in the 1930s by the Mutual Orange Distributers.  Alas, no lime recipes. When you do fine pre-1950s lime recipes they tend to be for cocktails or for marinating fish. For example The Modern Cook Book for the Busy Woman, by Mabel Claire, published in 1932 contains a recipe for a lime rickey and a non alcoholic lime cocktail.  Mrs Vaughan Moody’s 1931 Cook Book tells you how to make a lime sherbet with 12 limes and a Hawaiian cocktail to marinate fish with limes.  The Patio Cook Book from 1951 includes Joe Tilden’s Garlic Sauce (created we’re told by one of California’s most famous amateur chefs) which incorporates lime to create a sauce perfect for French bread, fish or jacket potatoes.

By this point I was beginning to feel really despondent – where was I going to find any written proof of the beginning of our love affair with lime as a baking ingredient?  Well, my perusing on a local bookshop shelf of American cookbooks did reveal something slightly more helpful.  A reprint of the first Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book from 1950 contained a range of lime recipes; its Lime Meringue Pie recipe was contributed by a member of staff from Florida (could this be a Key Lime Pie in disguise?) and it was accompanied by a Lime Cake Pudding and a Lime Chiffon Pie.  At last, the lime seems to have made its mark on the baking scene!

There’s plenty of gaps in this culinary account of limes, especially in terms of their use in Mexican, Indian and south East Asian cooking (one of my favourite discoveries in Singapore last year was lime juice, refreshingly sharp, with just a hint of sweetness below, the perfect drink for a bakingly hot day).  I would love to be presented with an earlier recipe using limes in the baking of something sweet.  And please, please do let me know if you come across a recipe for Key Lime Pie pre-1950.  For this amateur historic cook there’s plenty more lime learning to do.

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