Some people have gone out of their way to make a perfectly good Fuji apple smell and taste like a grape. They call it a Grapple. There are also those who feel that plums should taste like apricots and that apricots should taste like plums, hence the booming pluot and aprium markets. Needless to say, when I first heard of Meyer lemons, I assumed they were a breed of fancy Frankenlemons created at some technologically advanced Meyer Institute of Frilly Fruit. Like a fool, I snubbed them.
But they were hard to ignore, as the “Meyer lemon” moniker began popping up on menus everywhere. If chefs were going to pedigree a dish with this name, I figured this citrus was worth a try. It was only when I tasted the faint orangey sweetness and breathed in the floral scent that I understood what a contribution this fruit was.
In 1901, a man named Frans Meijer left Amsterdam for America, where he became Frank Meyer. Working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he traveled the world in search of new plants to introduce to his adopted homeland. During a trip to China, Meyer found a common potted ornamental plant that bore a small citrus fruit resembling a cross between a lemon and an orange. While the plant had most likely been cultivated for over four hundred years, this year marks its centennial in America, having been introduced here in 1908 as the Meyer lemon. (Intriguingly, while traveling the Yangtze on a riverboat on a subsequent trip to Asia, Meyer fell overboard and drowned under circumstances that the USDA still notes as “a mystery and source of speculation.”)
Meyer lemons, which are available from November to April, never hit the big time as a commercially viable fruit product. A virus nearly wiped out the trees in the 1940s. Even though a hardier Meyer Improved strain was developed, the fruits remained thin-skinned, and too tender and juicy to withstand rigorous commercial handling and shipping without costly waste. And yet, find me a food that has been deemed lacking in mass appeal, and I’ll show you the next great ingredient with chef-appeal.
Alice Waters and her ilk regarded this small zesty fruit as a gem, and the rest is all talk shows and cookbooks. Chefs and home cooks have found it to be an amiable companion to many dishes that a regular lemon might overwhelm. Although no one really knows, it’s the suspected cross with a mandarin orange that gives this citrus a new depth of flavor. Personally, I can’t help but think of cardamom whenever I cut into a Meyer.
To get over the shame of my initial snubbing, I threw myself into a wholehearted culinary exploration of this fruit. Starting simply, I squeezed a tiny section onto a Malpeque oyster and discovered a new balance of coppery, salty, tart, and sweet. Marmalades and baked goods made with Meyers were beautiful, but almost too easy, too girl-next-door. So I tossed zest into pasta with salmon; I braised chicken and artichokes with whole quarters; I made a zippy version of gremolata, which I proceeded to eat on pork and beef—and then bread and anything leftover in the fridge.
In the end, what I have added to my larder is a flavor that is tart but not sharp, luscious but edgy, and able to play to both savory and sweet dishes. Hardly worthy of a snub.