The February Mastery challenge from Food in Jars is all about salt preserving. Probably the most common foods that were salted historically were meat and fish, but these are specifically excluded from the challenge. Instead, I’ve gone with classic preserved lemons.
Although now something of a favourite with hipster cafes, preserved lemons have a very long history. The 14th century traveller Ibn Battuta described eating them at a meal in Mogadishu, as well as in Kerala, India later in his travels. Talking about the meal he ate in Mogadishu sometime between 1327 and 1330, he wrote:
Their meat is generally rice roasted with oil, and placed in a large wooden dish. Over this they place a large dish of elkūshān, which consists of flesh, fish, fowl, and vegetables. They also roast the fruit of the plantain, and afterwards boil it in new milk: they then put it on a dish, and the curdled milk on another. They also put on dishes, some of preserved lemon, bunches of preserved pepper-pods salted and pickled, as also grapes which are not unlike apples, except that they have stones. These, when boiled, become sweet like fruit in general, but are crude before this: they are preserved by being salted and pickled. In the same manner they use the green ginger. When, therefore, they eat the rice, they eat after it these salts and pickles.
There are two recipes for making these preserved lemons that I’ve been able to find. One was written down by Ibn Jumay, Saladin’s doctor. This 12th century recipe is the one that I used, and very similar to modern recipes:
Take lemons that are fully ripe and of bright yellow color; cut them open without severing the two halves and introduce plenty of fine salt into the split; place the fruits thus prepared in a glass vessel having a wide opening and pour over them more lemon juice until they are completely submerged; now close the vessel and seal it with wax and let it stand for a fortnight in the sun, after which store it away in a cool place for at least forty days; but if you wait still longer than this before eating them, their taste and fragrance will be still more delicious and their action in stimulating the appetite will be stronger.
There is also a recipe in the 13th century cookbook ‘Kitab al-Wusla ila al-Habib’ or ‘The Link to the Beloved’.
Take lemons, slice them crosswise and fill them with crushed salt. Then press them into a bowl and leave for two nights for them to soften. Then press them very strongly into a glass jar, squeeze lemon juice to cover and pour it over them, and seal with oil. Their flavor keeps well.
The process of making either of these recipes is very simple, and it’s definitely worth having a jar in your fridge (keep them refrigerated after opening) to add a fresh lemony flavour to tagines or salads. I don’t know how mine have turned out yet, because I’ve got to wait another 40 days, but I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes.
What To Do With Preserved Lemons?
If you’re looking for something historical to do with your preserved lemons, why not try this recipe for Madira from ‘A Baghdad Cookery Book’?
Cut fat meat into middling pieces with the tail; if chickens are used, quarter them. Put in the saucepan with a little salt, and cover with water: boil, removing the scum. When almost cooked take large onions and leeks, peel, cut off the tails, wash in salt and water, dry and put into the pot. Add dry coriander, cummin, mastic and cinnamon, ground fine. When cooked and the juices are dried up, so that only the oil remains, ladle out into a large bowl. Take Persian milk, put in the saucepan, add salted lemon and fresh mint. Leave to boil: then take off the fire, stirring. When the boiling has subsided, put back the meat and herbs. Cover the saucepan, wipe its sides, and leave to settle over the fire, then remove.
Alternatively there are lots of recipes (many are translated on the Medieval Cookery site) in Lancelot de Casteau’s ‘Ouverture de Cuisine’ from 1604 which call for ‘limon salé’ such as this recipe for sturgeon:
Prennez vne piece d’esturgion bien nettoyée, rostie & fricassée dedans le beurre ou huyle d’oliue, puis vous prendrez vinaigre, & vin autant d’vn que d’autre, & le mettez boullir, vn limon salé par tranches, du saffran, du poiure, fueilles de laurier, rosmarin, mariolaine, racine de rafanus stampee, vne petite poignee de coriandre: estant boully iettez tout chaud sur l’esturgion, & le gardez ainsi bien couuert.
[Take a piece of sturgeon well cleaned, roasted and fricasseed in butter or olive oil, then take equal amounts of wine and vinegar and set them to boil with a sliced, salted lemon, some saffron, some pepper, bay leaves, rosemary, marjoram, pounded radish root, a little handful of coriander: when it is boiling, pour it over the sturgeon and keep it well covered.]
Max Rumpolt’s ‘Ein New Kuchbuch’ has a recipe for stewed beef which requires ‘gesalzene limonen’, while ‘The Complete Cook’ contains this recipe for Capon Larded with Lemons
To boyle a Capon larded with Lemons.
Take a fair Capon and truss him, boyl him by himselfe in faire water with a little small Oat-meal, then take Mutton Broath, and half a pint of White-wine, a bundle of Herbs, whole Mace, season it with Verjuyce, put Marrow, Dates, season it with Sugar, then take preserved Lemons and cut them like Lard, and with a larding pin, lard in it, then put the capon in a deep dish, thicken your broth with Almonds, and poure it on the Capon.
 Czarra, Spices.
 Batuta, The Travels of Ibn Batūta, 56–57.
 Quoted in Tolkowsky, Hesperides: A History of the Culture and Use of Citrus Fruits, 132–134.
 Quoted in Perry, “Sleeping Beauties.”
 Arberry, “Al-Baghdadi, A Baghdad Cookery Book (1226 A.D./623 A.H.),” 41.
 Gloning, “Lancelot de Casteau, Ouverture de Cuisine, 1604.”
 W.M., The Queens Closet Opened. Incomparable Secrets in Physick, Chyrugregy, Preserving, Candying and Cookery.
Olive oil (for sliced lemons)
(Note that these are not exact measurements and will depend on how big your jar is and how big the lemons are)
Instructions for whole preserved lemons
- Wash the lemons well. Slice down into halves without cutting through the bottom. Repeat at 90 degrees to make quarters.
- Put salt in the bottom of a sterilised jar. Layer the lemons in the jar with salt in between the layers. Squash salt down into the cuts of the lemons. Once the jar is full, add another layer of salt on top.
- Fill the jar with the juice of extra lemons so that the lemons are totally covered. Put the lid on tightly and leave on a sunny windowsill for 2 weeks, shaking the jar gently every few days to distribute the salt. After the fortnight is up, place the jar in a cupboard and wait for 40 days before using. Refrigerate after opening
Instructions for sliced preserved lemons
- Wash the lemons well. Slice the lemons thinly.
- Put salt in the bottom of a sterilised jar. Layer the lemons in the jar with salt in between the layers. Once the jar is full, add another layer of salt on top. Cover and leave for two days.
- Fill the jar with the juice of extra lemons so that the lemons are totally covered. Cover with a layer of oil.
Arberry, A.J, trans. “Al-Baghdadi, A Baghdad Cookery Book (1226 A.D./623 A.H.).” Islamic Culture 13 (1939): 21–47 and 189–216.
Batuta, Ibn. The Travels of Ibn Batūta: With Notes, Illustrative of the History, Geography, Botany, Antiquities, Etc. Occurring Throughout the Work. Translated by Samuel Lee. Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Czarra, Fred. Spices: A Global History. Reaktion Books, 2009.
Gloning, Thomas. “Lancelot de Casteau, Ouverture de Cuisine, 1604.” Corpus of Culinary & Dietetic Texts of Europe from the Middle Ages to 1800, May 14, 2006. http://www.staff.uni-giessen.de/gloning/tx/ouv3.htm.
Perry, Charles. “Sleeping Beauties.” LA Times. March 30, 1995. http://articles.latimes.com/1995-03-30/food/fo-48657_1_use-pickled-lemons.
Tolkowsky, Samuel. Hesperides: A History of the Culture and Use of Citrus Fruits. London: J. Bale, Sons & Curnow, Limited, 1938.
W.M., The Queens Closet Opened. Incomparable Secrets in Physick, Chyrugregy, Preserving, Candying and Cookery. London: printed for Nathaniel Brooke, 1655.