For many, many years, I have read or heard about these legendary Meyer lemons from California…first Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame waxed poetic about them in her early cookbooks, then the press really got into it and touted them as the most amazing and delicious lemons around. Everything seemed to point to California as the primary source of these fantastic lemons, and some folks were fortunate to have Meyer lemon trees thriving in their backyards… In the fanciest restaurants across the U.S., a quiet one-upmanship among chefs resulted in chi-chi Meyer Lemon pies, souffles, tarts, sauces, and cooked dishes as this lemon has gained an incredible following. I always assumed they were an American phenomenon. So on our last trip to New York, I was thrilled to find that my sister had a whole bunch of Meyer lemons which she used in a spectacular Meyer lemon meringue pie and I was able to take these photos and before writing this post, did a little research. Well, surprise, suprise, but WHERE do YOU THINK Meyer lemons originated from? Southern China!
Meyer lemons are believed to be a cross between a more common and tarter lemon and an orange, more specifically, a mandarin orange or what we refer to as ponkan. The lemons were brought to the U.S. from China in 1908 by Dr. Frank Meyer (talk about successful name branding), who worked for the US Department of Agriculture, and from those few original plant stocks grew into large plantations in California. Sweeter than most lemons, Meyer lemons are rounder and their skins are less firm than a regular lemon. They also are a bit more orange in color than a regular lemon. Apparently, a large blight affected the vast majority of crops and destroyed many Meyer lemon trees until a more hardy strain were developed and again propagated. They are now widely grown in California where they thrive in the warm sub-tropical weather. If you had asked me if I thought Meyer lemons originated around these parts, I wouldn’t have answered that question correctly… But then again, given that Key Limes also originated from these parts (our native dayap to be specific!), I shouldn’t have been so surprised…
Which brings up an interesting question. Why the heck aren’t we growing this variety of lemons in droves in the Northern provinces of the Philippines instead of the more common acid sour lemon? Heck, our kalamansi is also believed to be a cross of citruses, possibly originally from China as well, and it also has such a unique, distinct flavor. So, hello?!, calling all citrus growers, how about trying to grow these lemons which command a huge premium over the tarter traditional yellow lemons? Now that I am writing this post, I realize I should experiment with some regular lemons and some mandarin oranges I have in the fridge… time to test if I can replicate a meyer lemon juice…then perhaps a tart… or even a souffle!