"Can we make lemonade Grandma?"
Any grandma worth her salt says "yes" to that one. In our case "making lemonade" means that the whole tribe of kids (any more than two kids under 10 is a tribe) have to put on their boots, jackets, gloves, hats and no more than half an hour later will troop out to "pick the ingredients", in this case, the biggest lemons on the trees - the biggest lemons are always the ones slightly out of reach - and as many limes as would fit in Grandma's pockets. (It is the duty of every grandma to wear a coat with large pockets).
Picking the lemons took another half hour, with a slight detour to gather camellias. Juicing the lemons took longer, as every kid had to have a go and we have only one juicer. (Note to self: buy another juicer). We then added two tablespoons of sugar to the juice of about 15 limes and lemons, filled a large jug with water, found the smallest and most ornamental cups in the cupboard and served the adults with freshly picked, freshly made lemonade.
The duty of every adult is to praise all lemonade made by kids. But this time the praise had an element of genuine shocked delight as everyone reached for another glassfull. "What's IN this?"
"Lemon juice, lime juice, a bit of sugar, water."
"But it's so sweet! And there's another taste..."
Except there wasn't. Our guest was simply tasting lemonade made from freshly picked lemons for the first time.
Lemons straight from the tree are sweeter, partly because they are left till truly ripe. Ripe apples are sweeter than those picked still green. Lemons get sweeter the longer they stay on the tree too, as do limes. Yes, a bit of sugar is still needed, but not much - home-grown citrus has the sweetness shop-bought can never have, partly because extremely ripe citrus doesn't last long, and would rot before it got from warehouse to shop to home.
Most shop-bought fruit has also had a long period of cold storage - cold storage robs every fruit of flavour. The best fruit is tree-ripened and eaten fresh, apart from a few rarities like pineapple quinces or Sturmer Pippin apples that improve with storage - though not cold storage.
If you want real lemonade - the kind that made lemonade deservedly famous - you need home-grown lemons. The lemons also need to be very ripe, a bright glowing golden, and nipped by the cold so they soften and sweeten even more and the juice flows easily even for the small hand of a four-year-old.
Anyone can grow a lemon. All you need is sunlight, a big tub, and a lemon tree, as well as plant food and water and mulch - tub-grown trees especially need mulch or else the potting mix turns to concrete. Don't put the mulch right up to the trunk though, or the trunk may begin to rot.
Anyone can kill a lemon tree too. The main causes of death are under feeding - yellow leaves, with the oldest one being the most yellowish; overfeeding, especially if the soil is dry - yellow leaves that drop off and none ever grow again, and failure to water - brown leaves. Frost will kill a lemon tree too, so keep it by a sunny wall in cold climates.
I've grown blasé about lemons - it's been about half a century since I've drunk lemonade or lemon cordial or lemon and olive oil vinaigrette made from commercial lemons. I've forgotten how nondescript commercial lemons are - and how much additives, preservatives et al add to the flavour of most products these days, so much that most people get a shock when they taste the real thing: a little sugar, lots of water, and lemon and lime juice, sweet, ripe, tender and tart and straight from the tree.
This week I have been:
- Drinking large amounts of lemonade because everyone wants to have a turn at squeezing the lemons and picking the biggest on the tree.
- Arbitrating who gets the frilliest camellia on each bush
- Explaining how sticks can poke your eye out and so can fences using star pickets, which is why you need to put covers on star pickets and should not wave sticks about in the garden
- Still eating far too many home-grown potatoes. I will soon resemble a potato, in shape if not in colour.
- Picking the first round Reed avocados, planted about five years ago. I didn't even realise we had a crop this year - the fruit is the same colour as the leaves, which is not a good evolution strategy if the birds are supposed to see the fruit far below then carry it off to eat elsewhere, leaving the seed to sprout.
- Discovering that I haven't killed the coffee bush by leaving it out in the winter frost too long. Now it's safe in the living room it is putting out green leaves. It is good to be forgiven by a coffee bush.