Citron, three ways

On my recent trip to Sicily, I brought with me Helena Attlee’s beautiful ode to citrus in Italy, The Land Where Lemons Grow. It’s a fascinating, beautifully written account of the history and current situation of citrus through Italy’s best known citrus areas, from the Medici’s citrus collection in Florence to the mafia tainted mandarins in Palermo, the lemons of Amalfi and Garda and more. The last chapter is about Calabria’s cedri, or citrons.

Citron recipes

The most mysterious of the citrus family, citrons are striking, fragrant, enormous fruit that I discovered most people have no idea what to do with. Like an oversized but rather useless lemon. I adore Helena Attlee’s description of it:

“It looks like the beginning of an idea about fruit, a rough prototype made at an early stage of the design process, a crude unfinished thing, a dinosaur that evaded extinction, a Neanderthal on a tree… It has the open pores of an alcoholic’s nose and it exudes a perfume so powerful that it can engulf the ground floor of a house, moving from room to room in penetrating swathes.”

Citron - cedro

Admittedly, at the time I read this, I had never had a personal experience with fresh citrons, but I finally came across them in the market and bought two, impulsively, to experiment with – and I discovered they’re not useless at all.

The Ancient Greeks considered citrons inedible, but it’s scented skin and bitter juice were used for a large number of medicinal applications, including as an antidote to poison. It’s peel, although fragrant, is bitter, while the bright white rind – thick, spongy and surprisingly sweet – makes up a whopping 70 per cent of the fruit’s volume and houses a tiny amount of bitter, dry pulp. Incidentally, the (little) juice and pith have a very high vitamin C content and the peel’s essential oil has antibiotic properties.

In Italy, citrons are used mostly for candying – candied citron is an important ingredient in panettone and desserts like Neapolitan pastiera – or in producing liqueurs and flavoured soft drinks like cedrata tassoni (if you are a fan of Mina, like I am, you may enjoy seeing these 1970s television commercials for the drink, starring her).

Citron rindcitron liqueur - cedrello

I was tempted to try candying my citrons (David Lebovitz has a detailed candied citron recipe) but I have to admit, with my new and exciting acquisition, I was too impatient to wait a week before seeing the final result.

I separated the fruit into its three distinct parts: the fragrant peel, the thick, white pith and the leftover pulp. Cedrello is the citron version of limoncello and it’s easy, just soak the peel in alcohol for a couple of weeks, filter and add a water and sugar syrup. The pulp, simply to not throw away, I boiled to bring out the juice and turned into a simple syrup to mix with sparkling water for a homemade cedrata.

The pith is the most interesting, surprising part. Helena Attlee includes a Calabrian recipe for insalata di cedro in her book. Thinly sliced and tossed with sweet shallots, lemon juice, olive oil and black olives (I used capers, because lemon and capers are a match made in heaven!), it’s a refreshing, tangy salad. The spongy pith soaks up the flavours in the most amazing way and has an uncanny similarity to eggplant. In fact, so similar that Marco had the urge to grill some slices of it – sprinkled with salt and eaten as is, warm, is delicious. It has an ever so slightly sweet and citrussy flavour but a bite like eggplant. It would be wonderful with fish.

Citron rind salad - insalata di cedro

Insalata di Cedro (Citron rind salad)

Slightly adapted from a recipe in Helena Attlee’s book, The Land Where Lemons Grow. She also calls for black olives and shallots instead of the capers and red onion.

  • 1 citron weighing about 500 grams/1 pound
  • 1 young red onion (or another sweet salad onion like white shallots)
  • handful of flat leaf parsley
  • 1 teaspoon of salted capers, rinsed and soaked in water 10 minutes
  • juice of 2 lemons
  • 100 ml of extra virgin olive oil
  • pinch of sea salt and cracked black pepper

Peel the citron carefully – remove the yellow peel with a vegetable peeler (save for making citron liqueur, recipe below). Cut in half and then in quarters, then scoop out the pulp with a small sharp knife (save for making citron syrup, recipe below). Basically you want to be left with clean slices of thick white rind, without any traces of peel or pulp. Finely slice.

Finely slice the onion and roughly chop the parsley and the capers, once they have been soaked and drained. Combine the citron rind, the onion, parsley and capers in a bowl and toss together well. Whisk together the lemon juice and olive oil and toss this quickly through the salad – quickly because the rind soaks things up like a sponge and you want to spread out the dressing evenly. Let the salad sit for an hour before serving. Sprinkle over sea salt and pepper.

Citron Syrup

This is something you could use in drinks – add a splash to sparkling water, tea or cocktails – or pour over a warm, fresh out of the oven cake for a sticky, moist and citron-scented result.

  • the pulp of 2 citrons
  • sugar
  • water

Weigh the pulp and add to it an equal amount of sugar. Let sit overnight to macerate. The next day, pour it into a saucepan and add the equal amount of water (for example, if the pulp weighs 200 grams, add 200 grams of sugar and 200 ml of water).

Bring to the boil and let simmer 10 minutes. Allow to cool completely then strain, squeezing the pulp to get more out of it, into a bottle or a jar. Discard the leftover pulp.

Cedrello (Citron liqueur)

Much like limoncello, cedrello is a sweet, refreshing after-meal drink to be served very well chilled and sipped on out of tiny glasses (which you can chill as well – keep them in the freezer for a few hours over dinner). It has a wonderful scent almost like perfume. This article by Luciano Pignataro (in Italian and English) is a great source of information on classic limoncello from the Amalfi Coast and I’m applying this technique to the citron.

Note: If you don’t have access to pure alcohol you can also do this with a neutral alcohol such as an 80 to 100-proof vodka. To do it with vodka, you may want to leave it to infuse a little longer (double the time) and use half the syrup — therefore half the sugar and half the water given below.  This recipe makes a liqueur that has an alcoholic content of about 30 per cent.

  • The peel of 2 citrons
  • 250 ml alcohol (in Italy we use a 190-proof/95 per cent alcohol)
  • 250 ml water
  • 400 grams sugar

Wash the citron gently but very well, going over it carefully perhaps with a brush where there may be dirt trapped in its pores. Peel the citron with a vegetable peeler, making sure you are only removing the bright yellow peel and no white pith. Place the peels in a large jar. Pour over the alcohol. Let the mixture infuse in a cool, dark place for a few days — the alcohol will become bright yellow and fragrant while the peels turn white. Strain the mixture and discard the peels.

Combine the water and sugar in a saucepan and heat gently, stirring occasionally until the sugar dissolves. Take off the heat and let cool completely before adding to the citron-infused alcohol. Keeps well in a bottle for months. Serve ice cold.

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Comments

15 Responses to “Citron, three ways”
  1. I’ve also had a hard time figuring out what to do with citrons now that I’m seeing them around. Now I’ll have a reason to buy them.

  2. Rosa says:

    Lovely. That salad is really wonderful and must taste fantastic.

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  3. Carmen Pricone says:

    Great post Emiko. My mother gave me two of these lemons claiming that they were of no use to her due to their little amount of juice. I used the rind in a cake today. Great to know that the pith can be eaten in such a way.

  4. You have captured the Cedro from just about every angle, grazie. Cedro is know as Etrog to Jewish families and used during the fall holiday of Sukkoth. Calabria hosts an orchard in which the Etrog is kosher approved and considered religiously suitable for use during this period of time.

    • Emiko Davies says:

      Yes, Helena Attlee’s chapter on citron goes right into the heart of a citron grove in Calabria that grows cedro for Sukkoth and it is absolutely fascinating! Well worth the read.

  5. Val says:

    What a lovely coincidence–I am also reading The Land Where Lemons Grow and have been on a citrus binge this season. In the US, at least in my area, it is easier to find Buddha’s hand citron, which has no pulp. I candied the peel for panforte and made “buddhacello.” I am currently making my way through 10 lbs of bergamot, so if you have any ideas for using that, I am all ears! I am only a few chapters into the book, but I look forward to reading about the bergamot fields of Calabria. So, far, I have made bergamot marmalade (a tad strong) and curd (awesome), plus saved syrup and candied peel.

    • Emiko Davies says:

      Buddhacello – I love it! :) I wish I had too many bergamot to know what to do with, I’ve never actually used it before, but I was gifted some delicious bergamot marmalade last year. Curd sounds wonderful. Perhaps you could also dry the peel and use it to make your own tea infusions (I’m thinking like homemade Earl Grey?)?

  6. Arlene says:

    How lovely to be able to buy cedri and wonderful to see them in situ. I adore their fragrance – quite unique. Guerlain’s ‘Eau de Fleurs de Cedrat’ is magnifique! Happy to discover your blog. xx

  7. Susan Dabney says:

    Our citron here in Ecuador is huge- 8-10 inches long and has a more bloblike shape, which I will eventually write a post about on the blog I am doing about working on our property here, but it really doesn’t seem all that fragrant. I will definitely try making a liqueur of the peels while I decide whether to grow it. It is a small tree/bush, possibly because of grafting, and the fruit hang on it like a row of long yellow melons. I’m thinking it’s a variation. The salad for sure will work- the vegan who gave me the fruit slices it thinly into salads without blanching, but he eats all kinds of stuff that my stomach rebels at. Will try the candying as well. Another thought would be to grow a couple plants and get an Italian or Californian to sneak me a couple cuttings of the Calabrian kind and graft them on. Our climate is magical for citrus; a garden of Eden where you pretty much stick a stick in the ground and, at least during the rains, it roots. Thanks for the post!

  8. Urvashi says:

    Such a great post. I have three from my trip to Sicily and I love all the suggestions above

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