Hope is something we’re in short supply of at the moment, at a time when we need it most. I’ve never been so aware of the power of light as during the pandemic. The long, light-filled summer days were like a balm that soothed the wounds inflicted by months of self isolation, making a difficult situation more bearable. Spending months on my own, I became acutely aware of the passing of time, and with it the changing seasons. As spring unfurled into summer, the warmth and abundance of light seemed like a symbol of hope; a reminder of brighter days ahead.
The clocks went back today and by 5pm the sky had turned to ink. As our days get shorter and light more scarce, the need to cling to hope becomes ever more important. For those feeling blue, solace can be sought in the simplest of ingredients – the lemon – the ultimate symbol of hope. Its vivid yellow hue and delightfully dimpled skin is enough to lift the spirits. There’s something inherently optimistic about lemons. They embody all that is wonderful about the world – a distillation of sunlight and warmth. Ripening slowly, like a photograph they capture a moment in time, expressing the essence of summer in their bracing juice.
I find it hard to imagine life without lemons – it would be like living without sleep or sunlight. While we regularly cook with them, we almost never enjoy them as a solo act, but their power cannot be underestimated. A spritz can enliven all manner of dishes, from a delicate piece of fish or a simple salad to a decadent dessert. The lemon is as fundamental and important to cooking as salt for enhancing flavour.
My love of lemons is entwined with my love of Italy. I remember being beguiled the first time I saw the size of the lemons growing on the Amalfi coast. They looked like colossal mutant cousins of the dainty citrus fruit we get in the UK. Staying true to his Italian roots, Alessandro Palazzi uses Amalfi lemons in his lethally strong Martinis at Dukes Bar, pinching the lemon peel so its essential oils infuse into the gin, meaning before you take your first sip, you’re treated to its potent perfume.
The word lemon comes from the Persian word ‘limu’. The origin of the fruit is disputed, though citrus trees have flourished in the foothills of the Himalayas for centuries. The lemon is thought to have first grown in Assam in northeastern India, entering Europe via southern Italy in the second century AD, though it would be a long time before the fruit was widely cultivated. Considered a rare luxury in ancient Rome, before being used in food, lemon trees served as ornamental plants and were used in medicine. It wasn’t until the 15th century that they were widely cultivated, with Genoa, rather than Sicily or Amalfi, serving as the production hub.
What better way to let the lemon express itself in all its mouth-puckering glory than in a lemon drizzle cake? I’m often bitterly disappointed by the whispering suggestion of lemon in shop bought versions, as if us Brits might not be able to cope with the zingy onslaught of the real deal. Citrus fiends looking for a confident hit of lemon in their drizzle cake, should give this recipe a go. It bills itself as ‘the world’s best lemon drizzle cake’, and, having made it five times, I’m inclined to agree.
I go one step further and add the juice of two lemons to the batter, in addition to using two lemons in the syrup. This pushes the cake to its lemony limit, weeding out all but the most ardent of citrus lovers. It’s a celebration of sourness and the high juice content means it stays marvellously moist for days. As the nights draw in and sunshine becomes more scarce, the lemon serves as a reminder of brighter days ahead. That this too shall pass. That spring will return and life will renew itself. That however dark it may feel right now, there is reason for hope.